The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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April 20, 2001 Issue
Saint of the Day

To get the Word of God to mission territory, you need a good alphabet

St. Stephen of Perm believed language is a gift from God

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

Over the course of human history, people have come up with numerous inventions.

Some - such as the wheel - have numerous applications and alter and affect history forever. Others, such as the Hula Hoop, despite its similarities to the wheel, are transient and do little or nothing to leave their mark.

But imagine inventing an alphabet. Now that's something that would stay around, that would have a daily influence on the life of people.

Inventing an alphabet is but one reason why we remember St. Stephen of Perm.

Stephen, a Russian, became a monk at Rostov, Russia. Later, he was assigned to work among the Zyriane, a Finno-Ugric people living in the southwest portion of the Urals, a 1,500-mile range of mountains that runs south in Russia from near the Arctic Ocean to about the Kazakhstan border.

The Russians had long sent missionaries to work among non-Christian peoples such as the Mongols and Finns, beginning with the conversion of the country to Christianity under Vladimir I in about 988. Stephen reignited that missionary interest.

He ardently believed that languages are a gift of God and everyone should be able to worship and pray to God in their own language.

So, a priority for his work among the Zyriane - he had been born in this area, although he was Russian - was to translate the liturgy and part of the Bible into their language.

But first, he needed an alphabet in which to write. So he invented one, not based on the Russian alphabet, but derived from patterns the people used in their carving and embroideries as a way of making the alphabet and written language their own. He also started several schools, where he taught this newly devised written language.

Stephen, like other missionaries, used the beauty and solemnity of the liturgy to attract non-Christians to Christianity.

Besides his work as a missionary, Stephen also looked after the poor and oppressed.

In 1383, Stephen was named the first Bishop of Perm, a sign of his success among the Zyriane. He also opposed the heretical teachings of the Strigolniks, a group of Russian religious dissenters similar to the Lollards - followers of John Wycliffe - who rejected the Mass - a primary means of conversion for Stephen - and most of the sacraments.

He died in Moscow in 1396. We celebrate his feast on April 26.

(Sources: Butler's Lives of the Saints; Dictionary of Saints and World Book Encyclopedia)

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