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My wife and I have had a custom, every Feb. 14th since college, of exchanging cards with hearts on the front and “Happy Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day” messages on the inside. February 14 is not St. Valentine’s day, but theirs.
St. John Paul II gave us an even greater reason to celebrate those saints.
John Paul wrote deeply on the grand topics of our day. For him, encyclicals are foundation stones: Faith and Reason, On Human Work, The Redeemer of Man. But he also wrote an encyclical called Slavorum Apostoli, “The Apostles of the Slavs,” about Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who lived and died at the end of the first millennium.
This encyclical may be more important than all the others.
Cyril and Methodius were from a socially well-to-do family on the border of the Byzantine empire and the Slav territories to the west. Both had bright futures in the world. But both — Methodius early on, Cyril after a brief career — entered the monastery on Mt. Olympus to offer their talents exclusively to God.
“The event which was to determine the whole of the rest of their lives,” the Pope wrote, “was the request made by Prince Rastislav of Greater Moravia to the Emperor Michael II to send to his peoples ‘a Bishop and teacher … able to explain to them the true Christian faith in their own language.’“
The two dove into the job, not only translating Scripture into Old Slavonic, but creating an alphabet in order to do so.
Cyril died Feb. 14, 869. On his deathbed in Rome he told Methodius to stay in the world and off of Mount Olympus: “I know that you greatly love your Mountain, but do not for the sake of the Mountain give up your work of teaching. For where better can you find salvation?”
Methodius did as he said and, despite persecution by pagans and opponents within the Church, sowed the seeds of one of Europe’s most Catholic cultures — the one which eventually produced John Paul himself.
Like these two brothers, many Americans come from backgrounds of prosperity and opportunity. Like them, we confront a culture that needs Christ badly. And like those two brothers, many of us have left the culture around us, at one time or another, and ascended our own Mount Olympus.
On our Mount Olympus, the faith rules. We are surrounded by friends or family who think like we do. In our forays into the darkness around us — at work, at the store, meeting our neighbors — we want to say as little as possible, get what we need, and then hurry back to our mountain.
To bring the faith to our neighbors, we would have to learn to speak in the language of a culture that we want to ignore (except when we are binge-watching it on Netflix).
But the Church is not supposed to be a Mount Olympus walled off from the world, or a brightly lit dungeon hidden in our neighborhood, our own Catholic hideout in the midst of the pagans.
Cyril and Methodius not only left their mountain, they left it to live with barbaric people who lived in ways that were offensive to their sensibilities and spoke in noises that sounded to them like grunts. Not only did they live with these people, they learned how to grunt back.
If you used the words from The Apostle to the Slavs to make a mission statement for Catholics, it would look something like this: “become similar in every aspect to those to whom [you] are bringing the Gospel … share their lot in everything. Translate the truths of the Gospel into a new language … make an effort to gain a good grasp of the interior world of those to whom you proclaim the word of God … Proclaim the Gospel in images and concepts that would sound familiar to them.”
We will never get the masses to ascend Mount Olympus to find the faith. Instead, we will have to descend to them.
“By incarnating the Gospel in the native culture of the peoples which they were evangelizing,” John Paul said, Cyril and Methodius “were especially meritorious for the formation and development of that same culture, or rather of many cultures.”
So April and I this year will once again exchange Sts. Cyril Valentines and Methodius chocolates, fully appropriating the culture of our day — and hoping to have something to say that someone can hear.