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St Cyril and St Methodius
Co-patrons of Europe (entered heaven on this day in 869 [St Cyril] and in 884)
Happy Valentine’s Day. Today is still the feast of St Valentine of Rome, who was one of our great early Christian martyrs. He was beaten and beheaded in 269, in Rome, but not before he converted his jailor by curing the jailor’s daughter of her blindness.
Some sources distinguish him from St Valentine of Terni (not to far from Rome), a bishop who met a similar fate and whose feast also falls on today. Other sources say they are actually the same person. Either way, what do they have to do with the modern understanding of Valentine’s Day? Not much – at first glance anyway.
Sending valentines and flowers and candies to romantic counterparts didn’t originate, it seems, until the 15th century, when in England such customs evolved out of the belief that this was the day birds chose mates. A far cry from martyrdom, right? Not really. What is martyrdom but the expression of an even deeper love? In fact, what is sanctity but a celebration of the Truest of all Loves? Take the saints whom the whole Church remembers today, for example, the co-patrons (with St Benedict, St Edith Stein, and St Bridget of Sweden) of Europe.
Cyril and Methodius were brothers. They grew up in Greece and received an excellent education, which they both put to work initially in the civil sphere. Methodius was governor of a Slavic province in the Byzantine Empire, and Cyril so impressed the emperor with his wisdom and prudence, that he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Khazars in the Ukraine. Eventually, both mixed experiences with religious life into their political dabbling, and so they were the emperor’s natural choice when the prince of Moravia (Slavic Europe) requested some missionaries who could evangelize the Slavic peoples in their own language.
Thus began one of the most famous missionary endeavors in the history of Europe. The saintly brothers were tireless in their efforts to minister physically and spiritually to the pagan Slavs, and the people responded blithely. Cyril and Methodius also managed to come up with a written alphabet for the Slavonic language, which became the vehicle for a national literature. They also composed an entire liturgy in that tongue, which to this day is the liturgical language for both the Orthodox and the Catholic communities in Russia, the Ukraine, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Before their mission ended, they also translated the Bible into Slavonic.
Unfortunately, political conflicts between over the Slavic lands interfered with their work, and twice they were called to Rome in order to plead their case before the Pope. During the first visit, they were approved, made bishops, and commissioned to continue full speed ahead, though Cyril fell ill and died there in the Eternal City. Methodius labored on, in spite of bitter attacks from German prelates and princes, and dishonorable connivances on the part of the Byzantines. The human reality of the Church erected obstacles, but never hindered the exercise of his zeal. The unity of the faith was vindicated when he finally died, exhausted, and the funeral Mass was held in all three liturgical languages: Latin, Greek, and Slavonic. Rivers of faithful who had received Christ through the achievements of these two missionaries flowed for days as they paid their respects after the funeral.
Their lives are a testimony of love, pure and simple. They loved their God and the souls they served more than themselves, and so they gave their lives in honor of that love. Such is the perfect valentine, if you ask me. So I say again what I already said, and I mean it: have a very happy Valentine’s Day, today and every day.
Your devoted uncle,