Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers born in Thessaloniki, were responsible for establishing Greek Orthodoxy in Russia and Ukraine.
Thessaloniki was part of the Byzantine Empire. Cyril, born c. 826 and Methodius, born c. 815 both became Christian theologians and missionaries and later received the title “the Apostles of the Slavs.”
Cyril (who was originally named Constantine) had missionary experience with the Arabs and later became a professor of philosophy at the patriarchal school in Constantinople.
Methodius (born Michael) was a monk who later advanced to the office of an abbot and became a figure in Byzantine political and administrative affairs.
The brothers lost their father early in life and were raised under the protection of their uncle Theoctistos, who was a powerful official in the Byzantine government, responsible for postal services and diplomatic relations.
Cyril and Methodius worked together for God
In 860 Byzantine Emperor Michael III and Patriarch Photius of Constantinople sent them to convert the Khazars, who lived northeast of the Black Sea.
The first mission of Cyril and Methodius was successful. In 862, when Prince Rostislav of Great Moravia asked Constantinople for missionaries, the emperor and the patriarch named Cyril and Methodius again.
Cyril and Methodius were the first to bring Christianity to Moravia. This was also an opportunity to expand Byzantine influence in the area.
The two brothers started their missionary work with the Slavs in 863, using the Slavonic language in the liturgy. They translated the Bible into the language later known as Old Church Slavonic (or Old Bulgarian) and invented the Glagolitic alphabet.
That was a Slavic alphabet based on Greek characters that in its final form, called Cyrillic, is still in use as the alphabet for modern Russian and a number of other Slavic languages.
The use of the people’s native language instead of Latin or Greek in the liturgy made the mission a great success among the Slavs.
Conflict with the Catholic Church
At the same time, missionaries from East Francia used the Latin liturgy and considered Moravia and the Slavic peoples as their rightful mission field; they soon came into conflict with the Byzantine brothers.
In 867, Cyril and Methodius were called to Rome by Pope Nicholas who asked them for explanations regarding another conflict in the Slavic areas.
The German archbishop of Salzburg and bishop of Passau claimed control of the same Slavic territory and wanted to enforce the exclusive use of the Latin liturgy.
The German clergy used their liturgical language, Latin, as a measure to maintain their influence in Moravia and therefore were unhappy with the missionary work of the two brothers.
The next year the two missionaries went back to Rome, this time invited by the new pope, Adrian II, who took their side and formally authorized the use of the Slavic liturgy.
Though Cyril died in Rome, Methodius was sent back to the Slavs as Adrian’s legate and as archbishop of Sirmium, a province that included all of Moravia.
When power in Moravia fell into new hands, the government abandoned Methodius and he was accused of usurping the Catholic archbishops’ authority and of the “scandalous use of the Slavonic language” in the liturgy.
He was brutally treated and jailed by the German clergy, and only freed by the intervention of Pope John VIII.
After Methodius’ death, Pope Stephen V reversed John VIII’s ruling and forbade the use of the Slavonic liturgy. Wiching, Methodius’ successor, drove the disciples of Cyril and Methodius into exile.
Exile and the birth of Eastern Orthodox Churches
The exile of the disciples actually facilitated the mission of Cyril and Methodius. The Slavonic liturgy and Bible spread all over Eastern Europe and gave birth to the Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox churches, which still use the same Slavonic liturgy.
The posthumous influence of Cyril and Methodius reached distant Kiev, in what is now Ukraine, and left traces among the Slavs of Croatia, Bohemia, and Poland.
Russia, which converted to Orthodoxy about a century after Methodius’ death, continues to use his Cyrillic alphabet to this day, along many of the Slavic peoples.
Cyril and Methodius — “the Apostles of the Slavs” — were recognized early on as saints by the Eastern Orthodox churches and began to be celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1880.