Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Of Valentines and Diversity

Cyril and Methodius--the saints of
reconciliation and unity in diversity
We always think of today as Valentine’s Day—the feast of Saint Valentine, a third century Roman presbyter (priest) who, while in prison and awaiting execution for his Christian faith, wrote letters of affectionate encouragement to his fellow prisoners to keep up their spirits.  From these billets-doux comes the tradition of sending “valentines” to one’s friends and loved ones.  Sweet. 
      But, actually for those of us who were at Mass today it is the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius whose influence is not as broad as Valentine’s but has considerably more depth.  Cyril (827-869) and Methodius (815-885) were brothers, born in Thessalonica in what is today northern Greece.  Their father was Greek, their mother a Slav and there were five other brothers in the family.  Their father was a battalion commander in the Byzantine Army and he had met their mother while on duty in the northern reaches of the empire.  Their mother’s Slavic origin gave them a familiarity with the Slavic languages and customs.  Cyril, the younger brother, served the Emperor on a number of diplomatic missions to Islamic and Jewish states where he learned both Hebrew and Arabic as well as conducted serious theological debates regarding the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
      The Prince of Moravia, Ratislav, appealed to the Byzantine Emperor Michael III and the Patriarch, Photius, for a mission to his realm (which is in today’s Czech Republic.  The Moravians had already accepted Christianity from missionaries sent from Louis the German, king of the Eastern Franks (today’s Germany).  But these missionaries were trying to make Moravia a subject state in Louis’ growing empire and Ratislav wanted to balance the political influence by replacing the western missionaries with eastern ones.  (It is too early to say “Catholic” and “Orthodox” as the Church was not yet finally divided though there was a dispute between the Patriarch Photius and Pope Nicholas I in which Nicholas had declared Photius’ nomination as Patriarch invalid and excommunicated him. Photius, being a gentleman, returned the compliment. For more information see entries for January 25, August 23, September 5, and 10—2011.)  The Emperor and Patriarch selected Cyril for the mission and he brought along his brother, Methodius. 
     Once in Moravia their knowledge of the Slavic tongue enabled them to translate large portions of the Bible into Slavonic as well as to translate the liturgy into the popular tongue—something that gave them an edge over the western missionaries who persisted in using Latin for Church services.  Even though they came from Constantinople, initially the brothers seemed to have used the western liturgy for their model in designing a liturgy for the Slavic peoples.  The resistance to a vernacular liturgy by the German-oriented clergy who celebrated the Latin Liturgy made that project ultimately unsuccessful, but the brothers realized that if their mission was to succeed they needed not only the blessing of the Emperor and Patriarch who had sent them, but of the Pope to whom the Moravian people had already become attached through the efforts of the German missionaries.  The situation was very complicated because the brothers were walking a tightrope and trying to hold the Church together at a time when the Pope of Rome and Patriarch of Constantinople were duking it out.  When Pope Nicholas invited them to Rome they went—and they brought with them the relics of Saint Clement, believed to be the third successor to the Apostle Peter as “bishop of Rome” (pope).  Clement supposedly had died as a martyr in the Crimea after being deported there by the Emperor Trajan.  (The reason I use quotation marks is that the actual history is much more complicated than the pious legends and sixth-grade history that Sister told us in her naiveté, mostly because Father never told her either.)  In the event, they were warmly welcomed in Rome—the Pope saw it as an opportunity to stick it to his rival in Constantinople—and their use of the Slavic tongue in the liturgy was “approved” by Pope Adrian II (who had succeeded Nicholas in December 867).  When I used to have a pied-a-terre in Rome, I would often walk by the Basilica of Santa Prassede where there is a plaque remarking that the brothers lived there during their visit to Rome and so I have always had an affinity for these fellows—plus which I used to attend the Sunday Liturgy at the Russicum where it is sung in Old Church Slavonic a la Cyril and Methodius.  Cyril died in Rome and was buried near the relics of Saint Clement in the basilica of San Clemente where one can visit his tomb today.  Methodius returned to the Slavic mission—this time to Pannonia (in what is part of today’s Hungary and the Balkans with a bit of Austria thrown in for luck).  Here he came into conflict with those German bishop-friends of Louis the German again and the Archbishop of Salzburg was particularly annoyed as this was supposed to be his turf and he wanted Mass in Latin not some Slavic lingo.  Methodius went back to Rome to get the Pope’s support against the Salzburg claims and was consecrated bishop by Pope Adrian and give jurisdiction over Pannonia and Moravia.  This didn’t go over well with the German King and bishops and Methodius was arrested until the Pope ordered him freed.  The papacy continued to support Methodius and his Slavic mission throughout his lifetime, but after his death sided with the German/Latin Mass folk.  There has always since been tension between Slavic Rite Christians and Latin Rite Christians, even when all are Catholic.  Slavic Christians in the region evangelized by Cyril and Methodius—today’s Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and the Balkans tend to vacillate between communion with Rome and communion with the Constantinople Patriarchate. Most of those who were governed by the Austrian Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tend to follow Rome, most of those in the Balkans where the Empire was resented, have autocephalous Churches in communion with the Greek Patriarch.  Perhaps the greatest influence of the brothers however are in lands they never visited—in the Ukraine, Russia, and other northern Slavic states that still use Old Church Slavonic in their liturgy and the Cyrillic Alphabet for ordinary every day communications. 
     The importance of the brothers is that, loyal both to their Greek roots and Roman patronage, they represent an effort to keep the Churches of the East and West in Communion and Cooperation.  Maybe their intercession restore the Unity of the Church.  And let us Latin Rite Catholics remember that we aren’t the only peoplein the Church but the Church is truly Catholic and its history teaches us that there is plenty of room for diversity of liturgy and even doctrine.  Maybe we should send more Valentines and do less arguing about silly things.   

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