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Missionaries for Our Time

by Veronica J. Treanor

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“It is essential to go back to the past in order to understand, in the light of the past, the present reality and in order to discern tomorrow.”
– Pope John Paul II

In northeastern Greece, some fifty-five miles south of the Yugoslavian border, lies a cosmopolitan seaport city called Salonika. Two brothers born here in the first half of the ninth century were to have a lasting impact on history. Salonika was then an important intellectual, commercial, and political center in the Byzantine empire. The brothers, Methodius and his younger sibling Cyril, were raised in one of the city’s privileged families. Their father took pains to see that his sons received the best in the way of educational and social training. Brilliant and talented, the two young men had promising political careers carved out for them, but they astonished both their family and their peers by choosing the silence and isolation of monastic life.

Providence had other plans for them, however. Under obedience to their superiors they let themselves be sent among the Slavs of Moravia as missionaries. This act not only changed their lives but also would affect the cultural as well as religious lives of millions of Slavs for the next eleven centuries. The first Slavic Pope in history recently made the saints the subject of his encyclical “Slavorum Apostoli” (The Apostles of the Slavs) in which he extols them as spiritual aids for Christians today, and as “concrete models” for modern missionaries. Pope John Paul II sees their significance for today’s torn world as ambassadors of peace, understanding, and reconciliation.

A major theme in the Pope’s encyclical is the healing of division between the Eastern and Western Churches. “The division which unfortunately occurred in the course of the church’s history and which sadly still persists not only openly contradicts the will of Christ, (but) provides a stumbling block to the world and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the gospel to every creature.” He calls Cyril and Methodius “champions and patrons of the ecumenical endeavor of the sister churches of East and West,” because they sought unity and an end to division in “neither absorption nor fusion” but as “a meeting in truth and love.”

The encyclical is also concerned with the division of Europe, which remains a constant threat to religious and personal liberty and to world peace. The Pope tells us that Cyril and Methodius “made a decisive contribution to the building of Europe, not only in Christian religious communion but also to its civil and cultural union.” And he reminds us that to seek unity and peace in Europe – now divided between the free West and the Soviet Bloc countries – as well as in the rest of the world, Christians today should be “builders of communion in the church and in society,” exercising “openness to others, mutual understanding and readiness to cooperate through the generous exchange of cultural and spiritual resources.”

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Tags: Unity Eastern Christianity Greece Catholic-Orthodox relations