Born in Macedonia in the ninth century, these Byzantine brothers changed the course of European history by bringing Orthodox Christianity to the Slavs of the Balkans. They have been revered in the Eastern Church ever since. Pope Leo XIII introduced their feast into the Catholic calendar in 1880 and a century later St John Paul II declared them co-patron saints of Europe alongside Benedict of Nursia.
Born as Constantine and Michael, the boys grew up in a region with large numbers of Slavic migrants, and their mother may have been one. After their father’s death, when Cyril was 14, the Byzantine government minister Theoktistos became their guardian.
Cyril understood Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Greek and Slavic, and was sent to the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad to discuss theology and improve relations. After the end of his travels, he returned to Constantinople and became a professor of philosophy, while his brother got involved in politics.
In 862 there began the great evangelisation, bringing Christianity to Great Moravia, the first advanced state to emerge in the Slavic world (they were successful partly because the Moravian prince did not want Latin missionaries).
They began translating the Bible into Old Church Slavonic, but came into conflict with German missionaries. They also – most famously – devised a Slavic alphabet that would become Cyrillic. The Slavic liturgy was approved by Pope Adrian II and Slavic priests were ordained. Cyril died in 869 just 50 days after becoming a monk; his brother lived for another
Today their feast day is celebrated across Orthodox Europe, as well as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia which, as it turned out, would stick with the Western Church when the Great Schism finally came.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (6/2/15)