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For Feb 14, which is not only Valentine’s Day but also the feasts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, my class at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, read Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Apostles to the Slavs” this week — an encyclical about these two remarkable saints who spread the faith in the ninth century in what would become Eastern Europe and Russia.
Alongside it, they read St. John Paul’s homily at World Youth Day 1993 in Denver. It’s fascinating to look side by side at how the two ninth century monks evangelized Russia and Eastern Europe and how the 20th century missionary pope Pope wanted Americans to evangelize in our day.
Here is a try at John Paul’s “tips” to approach the “Slavs” of our day — those who we long to reach with the message of the Gospel but feel removed from due to language and culture.
First: Leave your comfort zone.
When our heroes, Cyril and Methodius, were told to go and Christianize the Slavs, they were in a monastery on Mount Olympus and Pope John Paul II says, “For them, this task meant giving up not only a position of honor but also the contemplative life.”
Catholics can be very comfortable on our own mountaintops. We don’t want to deal with “those people” who disagree with us. We would rather hang out with the like-minded. But the Church is not a “brightly lit dungeon” as one priest once put it. It’s a “field hospital after a battle.” Our job isn’t to enjoy Christ, it’s to bring him to others.
St. John Paul applied this message to Americans at the Denver World Youth Day, saying: “Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.’”
Second: Speak to the culture in its own language.
In his encyclical, John Paul quotes the Slavs’ attitude to the Church before Cyril and Methodius: “Many Christian teachers have reached us from Italy, from Greece and from Germany, who instruct us in different ways. But we Slavs … have no one to direct us towards the truth and instruct us in an understandable way.”
Sts. Cyril and Methodius not only learned the Slavic language — they made its first dictionary, and even invented an alphabet for it.
We Catholics have a high moral language that teaches important truths with clarity and depth. But the culture doesn’t speak that language. So we need to find ways to teach those truths in a language they can actually understand.
As John Paul II said in Denver: ““The Church needs your energies, your enthusiasm, your youthful ideals, in order to make the Gospel of Life penetrate the fabric of society, transforming people’s hearts and the structures of society.”
Third: Embrace others’ lives totally.
St. Cyril and Methodius lived among and loved the Slavs. Says St. John Paul, “they desired to become similar in every aspect to those to whom they were bringing the Gospel; they wished to become part of those peoples and to share their lot in everything.”
How willing are we to live among and love those with whom we disagree? Our political opponents? Our cultural opponents?
Said St. John Paul II in Denver: “Jesus went in search of the men and women of his time. He engaged them in an open and truthful dialogue, whatever their condition. As the Good Samaritan of the human family, he came close to people to heal them of their sins and of the wounds which life inflicts, and to bring them back to the Father’s house.”
Fourth: Understand in order to be understood.
“In order to translate the truths of the Gospel into a new language,” said John Paul of Cyril and Methodius, “they had to make an effort to gain a good grasp of the interior world of those to whom they intended to proclaim the word of God in images and concepts that would sound familiar to them.”
In addition to their language, we need to understand opponents’ arguments.
The more we get where they’re coming from, the more they’ll be willing to get where we’re coming from.
The most successful evangelizing efforts always understand the other first. G.K. Chesterton made the point that St. Thomas Aquinas repeated others’ arguments better than they could formulate them. And Chesterton himself was very fair and understanding in debate.
“The challenge is to make the Church’s ‘yes’ to Life concrete and effective, said Pope John Paul II. “Place your intelligence, your talents, your enthusiasm, your compassion and your fortitude at the service of life!”
Fifth: Be faithful to the Church.
Cyril and Methodius’s ministry was very controversial. As they translated beautiful liturgical texts into the guttural Slavic languages, many raised objections. The brothers “did not hesitate to answer with docility the invitations to come to Rome.”
We can make a grave mistake when we think we are smarter than Rome and that the Church is such a bungling mess that we have to follow our own lights. Individual Catholics have no guarantee of our rightness or wrongness on anything. The Church, however, does. So we need to go to the sources of Catholic doctrine and follow them to a T.
Many of us have done a great job of assenting to the Church doctrines we have a natural affinity with, but a less great job of assenting to those we don’t naturally like. Jesus needs us to do both.
Sixth: Create new methods for your task.
In addition to a new language, the brothers needed a new teaching method..
“They realized that an essential condition of the success of their missionary activity was to transpose correctly Biblical notions and Greek theological concepts into a very different context of thought and historical experience,” said Pope John Paul II of our heroes. “It was a question of a new method of catechesis.”
A new method of catechesis. That’s what is needed today. Not just using the “new media” but finding way to make people today understand what God can do for them.
As St. John Paul put it in Denver: “Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”
Sts. Cyrl and Methodius, pray for us!
St. John Paul II, pray for us!