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Saints Cyril and Methodius: Models of Inculturation and Evangelization

February 14, 2017


A year ago today, I got myself in a bit of trouble. I stopped in the mailroom at the seminary and a couple of the good women on staff were dressed in red, talking about Valentine’s Day – it was February 14th. Being the proud descendant of Slovak grandparents who emigrated to the United States in 1910, I wished them a happy Sts. Cyril & Methodius Day. They looked at me funny, so I went on my annual rant, explaining that St. Valentine hasn’t been on the liturgical calendar since Vatican II, which happened more than a decade before my birth, and that the proper feast to celebrate on February 14th was that of The Apostles to the Slavs. Forget the chocolates, flowers and sentimental cards – bring on the kolbasi, kraut, and pivo! I late realized it was a dumb thing to do. I was pastorally rude and prideful. But even more, I modeled the antithesis of Sts. Cyril and Methodius’ style of ministry.

Cyril and Methodius were blood brothers, born in Thessalonica, Greece early in the ninth century. Their birth names weren’t actually Cyril and Methodius. Cyril was baptized Constantine and Methodius was Michael. (A monk’s monastic name had to begin with the same letter as his baptismal name.) Both brothers were very bright and well educated. Cyril studied under the philosopher Photius. He refused a brilliant marriage, became a priest, and was such a great teacher and mentor that he earned the nickname “Philosopher.” His younger brother Methodius held an important administrative position in Macedonia until he followed the Lord’s call to a monastery on Mount Olympus. Eventually Cyril would join him there. But the brothers would soon be sent on mission.Emperor Michael III received a request from Prince Ratislav of Moravia. Ratislav told Michael III that his Slavic people had rejected paganism and that they had embraced the Christian law, but they had no teacher to evangelize them in their own language. Other missionaries had attempted to evangelize the Slavs, but none were successful, because they all had tried to do so in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The Slavs needed missionaries who could literally speak their language. Cyril learned the Slavonic language as a child, and Methodius was a quick study, so Michael III sent the brothers on mission to evangelize the Slavic peoples, in their own language.

Benedict XVI said the following about these Apostles to the Slavs: “Cyril and Methodius are in fact a classic example of what today is meant by the term ‘inculturation’: every people must integrate the message revealed into its own culture and express its saving truth in its own language.” The pastoral brilliance of Cyril and Methodius, in the language of Pope Francis, is that they first encountered the Slavic people – then, and only then, were they able to evangelize them. The brothers didn’t impose a foreign language or unfamiliar customs on the Slavs, rather, they lived with them and learned their culture and their traditions, and soon became masters of the Slavic language. Over time, the brothers earned the trust of the Slavic peoples. The Slavs didn’t see them as threatening or condescending – they knew that Cyril and Methodius respected them and loved them, which made them ripe for evangelization.

Soon the brothers were preaching and teaching the Slavs in their native tongue. And although the Slavs had a language, they didn’t yet have an alphabet. So, one of the most important things that Cyril and Methodius did for the Slavs was to give them one. (Today this alphabet is known as “Cyrillic,” named after St. Cyril who developed it.) 

Cyril and Methoduis translated the liturgy and prayers into the Slavic language and they also wrote books in Slavonic on Christian dogmas. And the Slavs devoured it. Eventually, the scriptures too would be translated, and the Slavs would soon be able to encounter God in his Word. Benedict XVI observes, “Cyril and Methodius were convinced that the individual peoples could not claim to have received the Revelation fully unless they had heard it in heir own language and read it in the characters proper to their own alphabet.”

Last summer I spent a week as chaplain at Covecrest, a summer camp run by Life Teen in Tiger, Georgia. On the first night of camp, all 240 high school teens put on their grubbiest, rattiest clothes and participated in the muddiest, most challenging, most insane obstacle course that I had ever seen. They were swinging on ropes, bear crawling through mud, trying unsuccessfully to maintain their balance crossing mountain-water creeks, climbing and tumbling over walls, and barreling down the sloppiest of mudslides. After about an hour of that madness, the teens gathered around an enormous bonfire, while some of their favorite music blasted through the PA system. Mud-covered kids were singing and dancing and laughing to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.,” Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time,” and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” to name a few. For a moment it looked like it could be any group of high school kids at any high school party. But then it happened.

Adam and Lori, the musicians for the week, made their way onto a make-shift stage and began to sing live music as the recorded music faded. The music ministers started with “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers, and the young people cheered and then sang along to every word. After a few more pop covers, Adam and Lori strummed the opening chords to Matt Maher’s “Hold Us Together.” The transition from pop-music to praise and worship music was so smooth, so subtle, and so well-devised, that none of the kids seemed to notice what had happened. From that point on, every song was a song praise and worship, and soon the teens would be asked to direct their attention to a big wooden cross that they hadn’t even noticed was standing before them. After a brief bit of preaching on the power of the cross over some soft guitar chords, all 240 teens were invited to come, as they were – mud and all – to reverence by cross by a touch, a kiss or an embrace. And all of them did it. And it was beautiful.

Later that night as I was laying in bed, reflecting on the day, I couldn’t help but think that Cyril and Methodius would be so proud of the folks at Covecrest for pulling off one of the better moments of enculturation and evangelization that I’ve seen. They met the teens where they were, as teens. They allowed them to be themselves, playing in mud and running an insane obstacle course. They knew their music, and they played it for them, around a big old campfire. But they also knew that as fun as mud, pop-music, and dancing could be, they knew the teens wanted and needed more. So once they had their trust, once they had encountered them and allowed them to see that they understood them well, then (and only then) did they begin to evangelize. For the rest of that week, the staff, musicians, and summer missionaries, translated the Gospel into their language. And the teens joyfully received it. Many disciples were made that week.

Benedict XVI holds Cyril and Methodius up as models to the Church for the ministry of translating the truth of Christianity to every people. He writes, “This implies a very demanding effort of ‘translation’ because it requires the identification of the appropriate words to present anew, without distortion, the riches of the revealed word.” Cyril and Methodius were masterful at encountering a culture, and then evangelizing it – in that order. And last summer I learned we ought not limit our understanding of culture to a geographic space, but it is also most appropriate to adapt Cyril and Methodius’ model of evangelization to youth.