Saints Cyril and Methodius were a pair of missionary brothers who forged paths in the field of Bible translation. They worked among the ninth-century Danubian Slavs (indigenous Europeans living in the Danube River basin) and developed a written language for them. Saints Cyril and Methodius were so influential in this mission field that some people call them the “Apostles to the Slavs.”
Cyril, originally called Constantine, was born around 826 or 827 in Thessalonica, where his and Methodius’s father served as an officer in the Byzantine Empire’s army. Cyril traveled to Constantinople at a young age to study and eventually became a professor at the imperial university there. Methodius, originally Michael, was born anywhere between 815 to 826, also in Thessalonica. He served as a governor of one of the empire’s provinces. Later, he withdrew to become a monk.
Cyril was offered his brother’s position as governor, but he also decided to become a monk at the same Greek monastery where Methodius was abbot. Starting in 860, they worked together toward the conversion of the Khazars, located in an area northeast of the Black Sea.
Around 862, the Duke of Moravia asked Emperor Michael III for independence from German rule, which, despite opposition, was granted. Cyril and Methodius were sent as missionaries to recruit local clergy and establish a Slavonic liturgy. They translated the Bible into a language that was later known as Old Church Slavonic or Old Bulgarian. They also invented the Glagolitic alphabet—based on Greek letters—which is still used as the basis for modern Russian and several other Slavic languages.
Cyril and Methodius faced opposition from German religious and political leaders who insisted on using a purely Latin liturgy. Around 868, Pope Nicholas I invited the brothers to Rome to resolve the issues with the German officials—specifically, the German bishop of Passau—who refused to recognize the Slavic priests ordained by Cyril and Methodius. Pope Nicholas I died before they arrived, but the new Pope, Adrian II, took Cyril and Methodius’s side and formally authorized the Slavic liturgy and ordained Cyril and Methodius as bishops. Shortly thereafter, Cyril succumbed to a longstanding illness and died on February 14, 869, in Rome.
Methodius returned to Moravia with Pope Adrian’s blessing to continue his work as archbishop of Sirmium (modern Hovatzka Mitrovitza in Bosnia). Later, the political tides changed, and Methodius was tried and imprisoned in 870. He was not released until two years later when Pope John VIII intervened. Between 878 and 880, Methodius was again summoned to Rome to defend the Slavonic liturgy, and, once again, the Pope supported him and the use of the vernacular language. Methodius then traveled to Constantinople to finish the Bible translation he had started with Cyril.
Methodius was at odds with the German religious leaders until his death on April 6, 884, in Moravia. His work in the Slavic language continued to be contested posthumously, but Cyril and Methodius’s influence reached as far as Kiev in Russia and to the Slavs in Bohemia, Croatia, and Poland.
Saints Cyril and Methodius were pioneers in cross-cultural mission work and strongly believed that people should worship in their own language. Their linguistic influence continues today in modern Eastern European languages. The feast day for both Cyril and Methodius is May 11 in the Eastern Orthodox Church and February 14 in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.