IN THE CONTINENT OF EUROPE, last Tuesday was kept as the feast day of two of the six patron saints of Europe, the brothers Cyril and Methodius. Because of the popularity and growing commercialisation of St Valentine’s day, (who is not in the Church calendar anyway because the facts about his life are so uncertain), you have to work hard to get people to realise the importance of the two 9th century evangelisers of eastern Europe; but work hard we must.

We owe their place in the calendar in Europe to the great St John Paul II who added them as patron saints of the continent in 1980, not long after he became pope (until then the only one had been St Benedict, so named by Blessed Paul VI in the sixties; John Paul added three more women patrons in 1999). As one would expect he was conscious of the need to help people realise that Europe is not simply western Europe but eastern Europe too, at that time largely behind the ‘iron curtain’ – the Pope constantly spoke of the need for Europe to breathe ’with both lungs’. Part of this message was therefore about European unity at a time when the continent seemed hopelessly divided. For the Catholic Church, of course, this unity rests primarily on our common Christian identity and heritage and on the Church’s message of peace and reconciliation between peoples.

The brothers Cyril and Methodius worked tirelessly in the 9th century to bring the Christian message to much of eastern Europe, including the countries that are now Bulgaria (where the two saints are particularly important), the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Both were monks; Methodius was also made a bishop. One of Cyril’s priorities was to enable people to read the Bible and the Church’s liturgy in their own languages so he devised a new alphabet, an ingenious combination of the Latin and Greek alphabets, to make this easier, still called the Cyrillic alphabet after him, and used today in the Russian Federation and some other eastern European countries: in the picture on the left he is shown holding the alphabet.

When the countries of eastern Europe joined the European Union in 2004 this move was wholeheartedly welcomed by the Catholic Church in Europe at all levels – among other things our bishops in this country issued a special statement, and in this parish we ran a series of information evenings about the different countries concerned. This response was part of the Church’s continuing commitment to European unity, integration and reconciliation, inspired by the place of Saints Cyril and Methodius as patron saints of Europe.

Thirteen years later things look rather bleak, but the Christian message remains constant. Flag-waving nationalism is strong, thanks to the power of the Evil One – not only here but elsewhere in Europe, including the lands which Cyril and Methodius evangelised (particularly Hungary). We commend the whole of Europe to their prayers; we should also pray in particular for people from eastern Europe here who are worried about their future, and think about how we can support them.