The Other Saints of Valentine’s Day: Cyril and Methodius
In the Western world, February 14 is widely known as Valentine’s Day. It is typically praised by those who have someone who loves them romantically and is simultaneously rejected by those who do not. The last few years have seen it termed “Singles Awareness Day.” What few people realize is that this holiday derives from traditions associated with Saint Valentine, an early Roman martyr. If you go to Mass on February 14, however, you will not celebrate the life and martyrdom of Saint Valentine, which has been removed from the universal Church calendar, but who is still revered as a saint. You will instead celebrate the lives of Saints Cyril and Methodius.
Who are these other saints of Saint Valentine’s Day?
They have enjoyed celebration and veneration in the Eastern churches since their death, but have more recently been praised and acknowledged in the Roman Catholic tradition. Their praises were sung by the Council Fathers at the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870, and in 1880 Pope Leo XIII wrote a short encyclical, Grande Munus, and brought them forward for veneration for the entire Church. One hundred years later, in 1980, Pope Saint John Paul II declared Cyril and Methodius the co-patron saints of Europe in addition to Saint Benedict. Five years later, John Paul II issued an encyclical called Slavorum Apostoli, the Apostles to the Slavs, throwing a greater insight into the life and legacy of these two saints.
Cyril and Methodius were brothers and were born sometime between 815-828 (Methodius first, Cyril later) in the Greek city of Thessalonica, a center of culture and learning in the Byzantine Empire. They were born to wealth and status, their father having an important political role, and Methodius at first began to follow in his father’s footsteps. He soon quit his career in favor of retreating into monastic life and entered a monastery at the foot of Mount Olympus in Bithynia. Cyril (originally named Constantine) was ordained a priest, and so excelled in his studies that he was early called upon for prestigious roles within the diocese – Librarian of the Archive and Secretary to the Patriarch. Dissatisfied with the idea of climbing the ranks of ecclesiastical importance, he secretly retired to a monastery off the Black Sea coast. He was discovered six months later and persuaded to teach in Constantinople.
Cyril became so well known for his teaching prowess that he was named with the epithet “the Philosopher.” Both brothers were invited to participate in a delegation to evangelize the Khazar tribes, and took pains to learn the Slavic languages they came into contact with. While in the Crimea, they discovered the relics of Pope Saint Clement I, which were buried in a church with an anchor. They took his relics with them on their mission, and no doubt prayed often for his intercession and guidance.
In the 860s, Prince Ratislav Prince of Moravia (a large swath of what is today central and Eastern Europe), asked the emperor to send him teachers and priests who would be able to evangelize his subjects in their native tongue. Cyril and Methodius were appointed to this task and eagerly set out with copies of the Old and New Testament in Old Slavonic in hand. Sometime earlier, Cyril had set down the Old Slavonic language in a new alphabet, an alphabet still used today and known as the Cyrillic alphabet, and used his invention to write down the Sacred Scripture for use in the liturgy. Their missionary efforts were initially met with some difficulties, but later with great success and approbation.
Pope Leo XIII says of their work in Moravia, “Without delay, the apostles strove to penetrate their minds with the doctrines of Christianity and to raise their hopes to heavenly things. They did this with so much force and with such energetic zeal that in a very short time the Moravian people gave themselves to Jesus Christ” (Grande Munus, 5). These were men after God’s own heart, with apostolic zeal like Saint Paul, striving to bring the nations into the flock of the Good Shepherd.
In the later 860s, they traveled back towards Rome to seek Holy Orders for their followers so they could continue and further their mission in Moravia. When they did so, they brought with them in great solemnity the relics of Pope Saint Clement I, and Rome rejoiced to have Clement return to the place of his ministry. When they arrived in Rome, they also had to contend with naysayers who were suspicious of their usage of Old Slavonic in the Liturgy. They had an audience with the pope concerning the matter, and Cyril and Methodius were so persuasive in presenting their arguments in favor of the vernacular that the Roman clergy came to approve and rejoice in their ministry to the Slavic peoples. While in Rome, Cyril fell ill and had just enough time to make religious vows before dying on February 14, 869. Methodius wanted to take his brothers remains to their family in Thessalonica, but Cyril had endeared himself to the faithful in Rome that they begged that his relics remain in the city. Today you can venerate Saint Cyril’s relics in the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome, where Saint Clement’s relics also repose.
According to an early life of Methodius (Vita Methodii), Cyril told his brother on his deathbed, “Behold, my brother, we have shared the same destiny, ploughing the same furrow; I now fall in the field at the end of my day. I know you greatly love your Mountain [where Methodius’s monastery was located]; but do not for the sake of the Mountain give up your work of teaching. For where better can you find salvation?” Methodius took his brother’s words to heart.
Methodius was shortly thereafter consecrated Archbishop of the Diocese of Pannonia and was named a Papal Legate “ad gentes” for the Slavic peoples. He returned to Moravia to continue spreading the Gospel and shepherding his flock. The path was not always smooth. Wolves lurked about, threatening to attack shepherd and flock. He was imprisoned for two years, and was shown great hostility from Prince Ratislav’s successor, Prince Svatopluk. He was accused of being unorthodox, and the Slavonic liturgy continued to be held in suspicion. Methodius persevered through all these trials, and ultimately gained the respect and trust of the Popes in Rome, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Byzantine Emperors, and Slavic princes. He died on April 6, 885, still working on liturgical and biblical texts in Old Slavonic. His death was a severe loss to many, and in fact, the Church in the Slavic areas underwent much persecution to the eventual result that his followers left their mission field. The seeds had been planted, and Christianity blossomed ere long in central and eastern Europe.
What can we learn from these saints who were born and lived around 1200 years ago? Though many years separate us from these holy brothers, Cyril and Methodius are truly saints for our times. The last few centuries have seen in many ways the dissolution of the family. Many people become estranged to their family members because of religious and political disagreements. The attack on the family manifests itself in various ways, but the work of these two brothers points to the beauty of brothers working together in harmony for the sake of the common good – for the sake of the salvation of souls. They must be great intercessors for those striving to work with family members.
These men were also missionary shepherds. Though Cyril was never consecrated a bishop, he was a priest, and he worked hard and long to bring the Gospel to the Slavic peoples in their own language. Methodius encountered much strife and difficulty after his consecration as a bishop, but he remained true to his calling and to his Lord. At a time when many bishops are being called out for failing to be good shepherds, we can look to Methodius in particular and seek his intercession for the faithful missionary shepherds we have and we need in the Church today.
We can also look to Cyril and Methodius’s legacy of faith, which bears witness to the significance of one person’s saying “yes” to God’s call to holiness. The Serbians, the Bulgarians, the Hungarians, the Slovakians, the Czechs, and many others owe their Christian faith, at least in part, to the efforts of Cyril and Methodius. Methodius aided in the conversion of Prince Boriwoj of Bohemia whose wife, Ludmilla, is a canonized saint. These two are the grandparents of Saint Wenceslaus.
Cyril and Methodius’s “yes” to their missionary call with such zeal. It has lead to a rich Christian tradition in central and eastern Europe and to the faith of countless peoples. May we learn from these holy brothers how to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Saints Cyril and Methodius, pray for us!