The Apostles of the Slavs

June marks the 25th anniversary of this important encyclical by John Paul II.

Twenty-five years ago, the Polish Pope issued his fourth encyclical, The Apostles of the Slavs (June 2, 1985), to commemorate the 11th centennial of the death of St. Methodius, who with St. Cyril evangelized the regions of Moravia, Slovakia, and Pannonia (Hungary). The holy brothers from Thessalonica, whom John Paul II had declared co-patrons of Europe in 1980 along with St. Benedict, devised an alphabet for Old Slavonic and translated the Bible and the Byzantine liturgy into that language. In the encyclical, he calls them pioneers in enculturation and “authentic precursors of ecumenism,” because they fostered ties between the new Slavic Christian communities and both Constantinople and Rome “in the critical years” of growing “discord and bitter controversy between the Churches of the East and the West.” Thus “Cyril and Methodius made a decisive contribution to the building of Europe” in the religious, civil, and cultural spheres (Slavorum Apostoli, 27).

During the first millennium, Latin Europe and Byzantium developed as contrasting Christian cultures. Nevertheless, as then- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted in a conference on “Europe: Its Spiritual Foundations” (2000), “there were still sufficient unifying elements to make one continent out of these two worlds: in the first place, their common heritage of the Bible and of the early Church…then the same idea of empire, their common basic understanding of the [institutional] Church, and hence also the common fund of ideas concerning law and legal instruments; finally, I should mention also monasticism, which among the great movements of history had remained the essential guarantor not only of cultural continuity, but above all of fundamental religious and moral values…and as a force prior and superior to political authority.”

Cyril and Methodius shared this common Christian heritage with the Slavic peoples and thus incorporated them into the new People of God. In his encyclical, John Paul II described the two scholar-missionaries as “the connecting links or spiritual bridge between the Eastern and Western traditions” (SA,27).

Have the example and intercession of Saints Cyril and Methodius helped to restore unity to a continent which in 1985 bore the scars of two World Wars and was divided by schisms, ethnic tensions, and an Iron Curtain?

John Paul II did not mention Communism in his fourth encyclical. He alluded to restrictions on travel to and from the Soviet bloc when he wrote that during the 11th centennial of the death of St. Methodius he desired “to be present at least spiritually in Velehrad” (SA, 29), the former capital of Greater Moravia and headquarters for the mission to the Slavs.

Astonishingly, only five years later, on April 22, 1990, the Sunday after Easter, the Slavic Pope celebrated Mass in the Basilica of Velehrad, at the tomb of St. Methodius, during a two-day pastoral visit to Czechoslovakia. In his homily he spoke of “the Gospel day which dawns over Slavic history” and about the Kingdom of God, a “living inheritance” entrusted by Christ to the Apostles. He called Saints Cyril and Methodius “an eloquent example of [European] unity. The witness that they offered to our forebears in Slav lands is a witness to the undivided Church…. These Greeks sought support and confirmation for their mission in Rome as well.”

Most Western historians agree that Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed under the weight of their own economic inefficiency. Some, considering also the dire human costs of decades of Soviet hegemony in the region, attribute the “Velvet Revolution” of November-December 1989 to a universal quest for freedom. Yet the Catholic Church, too, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, undeniably played a decisive part in the fall of European Communism.

Karol Wojtyla taught ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin from 1956 to 1978, articulating and defending Christian anthropology in a dialogue with atheistic materialism. As Pope John Paul II he continued to teach the world about true human fulfillment and social justice. His fourth encyclical, which is addressed to the Universal Church and ostensibly deals with Church history and evangelization, contains additional lessons about the legitimate aspirations of all peoples and fruitful interactions among nations and cultures. Polish Catholics weren’t the only ones listening.

The chronology of events leading up to and following the Velvet Revolution is complex; a schematic approach clarifies the contributions of the Catholic Church to those rapid developments.


Although Eastern Europeans nicknamed the USSR “the prison-house of peoples,” Cardinal Wojtyla’s participation in the two conclaves of 1978 showed that not all satellite nations were detained in “maximum security facilities.” After he was elected Pope, John Paul II took advantage of Poland’s relative openness to the West and made weeklong pastoral visits to his native land in 1979, 1983, and 1987. Thus he was able to witness and encourage in person the development of the Solidarity movement.

The Vatican responded swiftly and generously to efforts by the Soviet Union to introduce political and economic reforms (“perestroika,” 1987). The Pope invited Mikhail Gorbachev to an audience at the Vatican on December 1, 1989, during which the Soviet leader promised to grant freedom and restore legal recognition to the underground Ukrainian Catholic Church.

As head of the Vatican State, John Paul II reestablished full diplomatic relations with Poland (October 1989), Hungary (September 1990), and Czechoslovakia (December 1990). On January 13, 1990, the Pope read a lengthy address to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican; five pages of it were devoted to recent events in Central and Eastern Europe.

“The unquenchable thirst for freedom that has been demonstrated has accelerated developments, caused walls to crumble and opened doors…. No doubt you have noticed that the point of departure or the meeting place has often been a church. Little by little candles have been lit, forming a veritable path of light, as if to say, to those who for years have claimed to limit man’s horizons to this earth, that he cannot remain fettered indefinitely…. Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Sophia, and Bucharest, to mention only the capitals, have become so many steps in a long pilgrimage toward freedom. We must pay homage to the peoples who, at the cost of immense sacrifices, have courageously undertaken this journey, and to the political leaders who have promoted it…. We cannot build a durable, common house for East and West…without respect for transcendent and permanent values.”

In this 1990 speech to ambassadors from all over the world, the Holy Father related the Velvet Revolution to the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement. On June 8, 1991, during his fourth pastoral visit to Poland, he met at the apostolic nunciature with the ambassadors accredited to the Warsaw government and fearlessly presented to them a similar interpretation of the Velvet Revolution.


Improved international relations meant better communications between the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe. On June 26, 1990, Pope John Paul II met in Rome with Major Archbishop Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and the 10 Ukrainian Catholic bishops “from the catacomb Church in Ukraine,” some of whom were meeting each other for the first time.

From 1990 on, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official chronicles of the Vatican, document the long-postponed reorganization of ecclesiastical provinces in Czechoslovakia, Byelorussia, and Poland, the direct appointment of bishops for dioceses formerly behind the Iron Curtain, and the resumption of ad limina visits from the bishops of Bulgaria, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, etc.

The ecclesiastical career of Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, archbishop emeritus of Prague, is typical of the heroic leaders of the persecuted Catholic Church in Slavic lands. Ordained a priest in 1968, he had to minister covertly from 1978 to 1988 while working as a window washer and, later, a bank archivist. Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of a small Czech diocese on February 4, 1990, and the following year made him archbishop of Prague (1991 2009).

Although Cardinal Vlk did not succeed in reclaiming Church properties from the government, he ably served not only the Church in what is now the Czech Republic but also the Universal Church, as a secretary of the 1991 Special Assembly for Europe of the Synod of Bishops and as the president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences from 1993-2001. The post-conciliar internationalization of the Roman Curia and regular consultation through the Synods of Bishops would have been incomplete without the inclusion of Central and Eastern Europeans in the past two decades.


At the Eighth World Synod of Bishops in October 1990, on the theme of priestly formation, Archbishop Stephen Sulyk, metropolitan of the Philadelphia Archeparchy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, made an appeal “for the recently liberated churches of Eastern Europe…. They are in need of many things—primarily the establishment of their own seminaries and formation programs.” He called on the West to provide teachers, books, and material assistance for the churches of the East.

In his memoirs, Archbishop Sulyk notes several symbolic but moving gestures that have helped to heal the wounds caused by historical conflicts between ethnic groups within the Catholic Church. As the Ukrainian Catholic Bishops in the free world were preparing for the Millennium of Christianity in Kievan Rus’ (988-1988), the Polish bishops invited them to hold a celebration at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Archbishop Sulyk is convinced that John Paul II himself persuaded them to extend that invitation. While in Poland he learned that in 1965, on the eve of the Millennium of Christianity in Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski, in the name of all the Polish bishops, had addressed the bishops and people of Germany as a gesture of forgiveness, unity, and charity. “The one who inspired this action…was the metropolitan of Krakow, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla.”

The Polish Pope preached that same message of forgiveness and reconciliation on his subsequent journeys to formerly Communist nations, culminating in his pastoral visit to Ukraine in 2001. Cardinal Ratzinger commented in a 1996 interview, “Especially through his trips, John Paul II has very emphatically made passing beyond Western territory a part of the Church’s life.” While traveling in Central and Eastern Europe he beatified and canonized dozens of Slavic men and women, from medieval religious and royalty to 20th-century martyrs, commending them to their fellow Slavs as intercessors and presenting their example for the edification of Catholics worldwide.

The encyclical letter Slavorum Apostolicites an important passage from Lumen Gentium 13 describing the universality of the People of God. “In virtue of this catholicity each individual part of the Church contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts and of the whole Church.” Since 1985 the example and prayers of the holy missionaries Cyril and Methodius have indeed done much to promote “just and peaceful coexistence in mutual respect and inviolate liberty” (SA, 30) in a reunited Europe.


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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.