“We, the Slovak People, bearing in mind the political and cultural heritage of our predecessors…mindful of the spiritual bequest of Cyril and Methodius…adopted this constitution.” Slovakia, lying at the crossroads of East and West in secular Europe, after being dominated for over forty years by a government that was no friend to Christianity, introduced its constitution by acknowledging its debt to two Christian missionaries from the ninth century.
For over a thousand years the Slovaks were unable to establish a state of their own — yet from the ninth century they kept a sense of identity so distinct that they and the Czechs divided Czechoslovakia into two nations in 1993. Much credit for this enduring cohesion belongs to Cyril and Methodius, such that, according to one historian, their “contribution to the establishment and development of central and east European civilization and culture is second to none.”
Why does their work continue to influence a modern, secular nation? Who were they, and what did they do? And what can we learn from them now?
In God’s providence, political expediency brought these missionaries to Great Moravia, a vassal state of the Germanic Frankish Empire that was composed primarily of Czech and Slovak peoples and included much of Moravia and a large area in what is now Slovakia. Prince Rastislav (846–870), in order to stem the influence of Frankish missionaries, asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael III to send “a bishop and teacher…able to explain to them the true Christian faith in their own language.” In 863 Michael sent two brothers from Thessaloniki: Constantine (later Cyril) and Methodius. In spite of wars and the political intrigue of Rastislav and his nephew Svätopluk, who deposed him, Cyril and Methodius and their disciples spread Christianity through Slavic central Europe.
Cyril was a philosopher and one of the most educated men of his time. His brother Methodius studied law and was a gifted administrator. In order to bring the gospel to the Slavs, before they left their home they created an alphabet by adapting Greek letters to represent Slavic sounds. Cyril translated portions of Scripture and the liturgy into what we now call “Old Church Slavonic.” This became the basis of instruction in the seminary and the schools they established. From their foundational work grew a body of literature that shaped the rapidly developing culture.
In 867 the brothers traveled to Rome to show Pope Hadrian II their translations of Scripture and the Slavic liturgy. The Pope approved them, and Slavonic joined Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as an official language of Christian worship. Cyril, sensing that his strength was fading, joined a monastery in Rome, and before dying a few months later in 869, he urged Methodius to return to Great Moravia to continue their work.
When Methodius tried to reenter Great Moravia, he was arrested at the prompting of Frankish priests. In 873 he was finally released, only to be forbidden by Pope John VIII to use the Slavonic liturgy. Methodius defied this order and continued the work he and his brother began.
By the end of the ninth century Methodius had died, the pope had again forbidden the use of Slavonic in worship, and Svätopluk drove many disciples of Cyril and Methodius from the kingdom (which hastened the Christianization of other Slavic peoples). In 907, Great Moravia was overthrown by the Magyars, beginning the thousand-year Hungarian domination of the Slovaks. Yet, within a generation, a deep and indelible stamp had marked a new identity that would eventually become modern Slovakia.
Conflicts with politically motivated civic and religious leaders permeate the story of Cyril and Methodius. That they were able to accomplish anything is remarkable, and that they made such a lasting and far-reaching impact testifies to the grace of God in His mysterious providence.
Due to the influential and powerful preacher Peter Pazmany, the seventeenth-century counter-reformation swept aside much of the work of reformers in the region. Today Slovakia remains predominantly Roman Catholic, visibly marked by its rich Christian heritage. But centuries of secularization in Europe, including the communist era, have undermined the church’s role in the lives of the people. And though the nation has ostensibly shaken off its former oppression, the effects linger; many who lived through the days of the secret police and mysterious arrests remain reluctant to talk about deeply held convictions.
Spiritual leaders in Slovakia today, in order to be effective, will have to find ways to work in a context that is as complex as the ninth century — and their window of opportunity may be just as brief. They must leverage changing laws to their advantage, meet rising needs for English language and professional skills, help resolve ongoing ethnic conflict, and apply the gospel to hearts emptied by failed materialism. Christian workers from other nations must identify with the Slovaks’ lives and traditions. Together they must think deeply about how Jesus transforms nations.
To paraphrase 1 Chronicles 12:32: Slovakia needs leaders like Cyril and Methodius “who have understanding of the times, to know what Slovakia ought to do.”