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EMILIANOS TIMIADIS [Metropolitan of Silyvria]

A Lesson from the Byzantine Missionaries

The importance in the mission to the Slavs

The importance of language can be explained in the context of the persisting policy in the west, where strongholds of “Triglosites,” supported from Rome, were refusing the use of any other language in worship except those three written by Pontius Pilatus on the cross: namely, namely, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The introduction therefore, by the brothers Cyril and Methodius, was seen as a scandal, a dangerous innovation, desecrating the sacredness of liturgical language. This integrist movement hindered for many centuries any attempt to simplify the archaic Latin language, or to accept all those new languages spoken in so many converted new lands. Certainly, such a persistent view made the mass in Latin incomprehensible – people standing but unable to participate in the very mystery, this provoking indignation, which was slowly preparing for the Reformation. Thus, the rapid success of this movement is explained, because congregations could easily follow prayers, the liturgical language, the Bible and all instructions.

Christianization of Moravia coincides with the defeat of the Avars by Charlemagne in 796. It is difficult to give the exact date since historical evidence is fragmentary. The best known report concerns the consecration of a church in Nitra by the Archbishop Adalram (circa 828), during the reign of Pribina.(5) It seems that sporadic missionary efforts by Germans appeared already in Pannonia and Moravia. Some of these missionaries declared in a letter to Rome that terra Sclavorum qui Moravi discuntur was once subject to Bavarian rulers and that through them the Moravians e paganis christiani sunct facti. Seemingly dissatisfied, the indigenous people, through their ruler Ratislav, sent an embassy to Constantinople asking for missionaries who could better understand the aspirations, the temperament and the whole culture, so that a religion deeply rooted in the local population could be proclaimed, with knowledge of the Slavonic language: “Many Christian teachers came to us from Italy, Greece and Germany, each teaching in their own manner… Since our people have turned from paganism and hold the Christian practice and law, but we do not have such a teacher as would explain the true Christian faith to us in our own language.”(7)Michael III, emperor of Byzantium, following thiw request, designated Cyril or Constantine and Methodius for this historical mission.(8) Upon their arrival, a rapid growth of Christian expansion took place, and the number of priests increased so that they were sent to all the towns; the pagans began to believe in the true God and “turned away from their errors,” as is recorded in a valuable historical document.(9) In order to meet the various religious and liturgical needs of the priests and of the laypeople, a translation of more and more devotional and liturgical books from the original Greek started. Thus, “Cyril soon translated the entire church order and taught to the disciples Matins, the Canonical Little Hours, Vespers, Compline and the Eucharist. So, the ears of the deaf were opened, as the prophet says, to hear the words of Scripture and the tongue of the stuttered was loosened.”

The historical period of the eighth to ninth century is characterized by confusion as to what limit is imposed by tradition and what new historical conditions were demanding a change. Many were identifying faithfulness and tradition with immobility. Nothing ought to change. Whoever dared to introduce a simple modification was thought to betray the religion, disrespecting the order and the directives of the church. It is in this context that one should see the difficulty of accepting new languages in worship and in expressing doctrinal view. The conservatism of the Trilingues became intolerable, especially in the west, relying on a misinterpreted comment of St. Jerome (342-420),(10) who in reality was saying that “readers of the Bible should respect greatly the three respective languages,” himself being a specialized biblical scholar. The opponents were referring to certain vague expressions of Isidore, Archbishop of Sevilla (560-636), who also highly respected the three ancient languages.(11)

Triglosites were well aware of all interdictions against their views. Their error was officially condemned by a council convoked by Charlemagne in Frankfurt in 794, which openly declared that God can be adored and worshiped in all existing languages throughout the world. It was evident that Cyril and Methodius, fully aware of the fanatical opposition, were fighting for liberties in language and worship in proclaiming the gospel to all nations, plunged in those days in deplorable ignorance and full paganism in many parts of Europe. More and more felt that if the church of Christ wanted to accomplish its mission of making known the redemptive message of our Savior, new methods and living native languages should be used in order to reach them. Christ’s teaching must become understandable, intelligible and accessible, since he himself came down from heaven in order to be close to the human condition, human being amongst human beings, weak amongst the weak. Thus, they started to translate liturgical texts and catechetical instructions in the new Slavonic with Cyrillic letters.(12) Unfortunately, their magnificent initiative, serving not exclusively one particular church, namely the Byzantine, but the whole universal Christendom, was viewed as unorthodox by the Latin “Philatians”. They started through political agents to accuse these brothers that they suffer “from arrogant pride, because they dared to do what nobody before them did; neither the apostles, nor a venerable pope of Rome, a Gregory, a Jerome, an Augustine”!

The linguistic problem became controversial not so much on the grounds of language as a verbal instrument, but behind it was hidden another wider factor influencing the relationship between Constantinople and Rome. We know the basic thought dominating the Hellenistic period: that the emperor, as head of the state, is responsible for the spread of proper worship. The principle must be understood that the supreme ruler of the nation had to care for the needs of citizens involving a wide range of welfare including religion, since religion plays such an important role in shaping the whole life. Consequently, a much wider responsibility was inherited from Constantine the Great, the first Christian king, and later became a permanent feature of leadership in all countries converted to Christianity.(13) Another principle, which proved to be very helpful, was that ecclesiastical organization should follow the pattern of the political division of the empire, thus contributing to the solid foundations of the structure of early Christian communities.

These two factors greatly increased the process of Christianization of groups living within the boundaries of a given kingdom. The newly emerging nations benefited from it, not only from the point of view of their acceptance of the gospel but also with regard to national unity, coherence and stabilizing their socio-political entity as well. Due to his mutual pragmatic sense toward the cultural, social and ethnic expediency, evangelism, instead of having been a marginal issue, peripheral element and stumbling block, was gradually accepted as an asset.

All the available historical sources agree that the teaching of the two brothers had a tremendous social impact upon the Slavs and the Slovaks. The cultural, as well as the intellectual, social, artistic and spiritual, standard of whole nations converted was considerably improved by the zeal and genius of these apostles and their associates. Behind the renewal of the evangelized peoples found in all aspects of life, one has to find the new faith proclaimed by them. In this light we have to see their achievement: the genial invention of the Slavonic Bible, as well as the admirable Slavonic translation of liturgical books. Although there were many adversaries disapproving these unusual new translations, we must admit the exception of Pope John VIII, who, in various letters, sent out support and even recommended their use.(14) John praises the Slavonic script and approves the new liturgical texts translated by Cyril and Methodius, aiming to offset the so-called “Three Language School” or “Trilinguists”, which openly opposed the use of any Slavonic language during the worship. John reminds his opponents that God had also created a fourth language, namely the Slavonic, for his honor and glory. He had even created the Greek, the Latin and the Hebrew. Disregarding the bitter opposition of the Bavarian episcopacy, he blesses the whole endeavors of the Byzantine evangelist:

We highly appreciate the Slavonic writing, discovered by a certain philosopher Constantine, with which they may praise God. We order, therefore, that in the same language be proclaimed the praises and the wonders of Jesus the Lord. In fact, we are advised by divine authority (Ps. 116; Acts 2:11; Phil. 2:11; 1 Cor. 14:5) that not only by three languages but by all existing we worship the Lord. Undoubtedly, there is no obstacle to the faith and the doctrine if we sing the Eucharistic Mass in the same Slavonic language, or if we read the holy gospel or the divine lectures of the New and the Old Testament provided they be well translated and interpreted. Or even if we celebrate all the other services of the canonical hours.

Certainly, who has made these three principal languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, has created too all the others for his glory and blessing. Consequently, we ordain that in all the churches of the region, for the attribution of a much higher honor, the gospel be read at first in Latin, followed by reading in Slavonic, as is the practice established already in certain churches. By using the Slavonic version, we facilitate those people who do not understand the Latin. But there are certain people who enjoy mass sung in Latin more than in any other language, then we ordain that holy masses be celebrated exclusively in Latin.(15)


5. M. Kos, conversio Bagoariorum, p.136

6. Gustavus Friedrich, Codex diplomaticus et epistolaris Regni Bohemiae, I, No. 30

7. Vita Methodia, cap.4.

8. Nestor, Chronicle.

9. The Life of St Methodius X.

10. Epistola ad Heliodorum.

11. Originum libri XX.

12. Historia slavorum Constantin.

13. F.Dvornik, De auctoritate civili in conciliis œcumenicis, Acta VI Congressus Velehrandensis, Olomouc 1933.

14. Letter in 879 Epistl. VII, No 200 ; Bull :Industriae tuae, » in 880 Epistl. VII, No 25.

15. Letter to Bishop Anno in 873, A.D., pp. 126,850.

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