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Sailing to Byzantium: Part I: the life and mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Spivam, jak hroznu Svatopluk na Karolmana ved'el Vojnu; i jak vit'az, seba aj svoj od jeho vladi Oslobodiv narod, nepodl'ehli stal sa panovnik; A zmuzilich velke zalozil kralovstvo Slovakov.

I sing how Svatopluk fought a terrible against Carolman War; and as a victor, himself and his own from his rule Liberating nation, became a free sovereign; And founded a great kingdom of valiant Slovaks.

Every Slovak pupil memorizes these haunting opening lines of the monumental epic written by the great national poet Jan Holly (17851849), a Catholic priest who first wrote in modern Slovak language. It is a long and magnificent poem describing physical battles and spiritual war with the powers of darkness, in which King Svatopluk frees the Slovak nation from the tyranny and arrogance of the Germans and Franks after God Himself finally answers the prayers of Saints Cyril and Methodius and reveals the glorious future of Slovaks.

The 2013 Year of Faith was proclaimed to commemorate the Second Vatican Council. Sadly, a crucial part of Christian faith and history was neglected by the Western Latin world. The focus, ironically, was meant to be on the Nicene Creed; yet the historical circumstances of the origins of Christianity, as well as its "other lung" as Pope John Paul II called the Byzantine or Eastern Rite, did not receive much attention. (1)

Unbeknownst to many Western Christians, the Year of Faith was also significant because the Christian world, and especially the grateful Slavic nations, remembered the coming of the co-patron saints of Europe, Cyril and Methodius, to Great Moravia in the year 863, this being the seminal occasion which defined the faith of many Christian nations east of Rome and Prague.

What both these events 1100 years apart have in common is not only the strengthening of faith of both Western and Eastern Christianity, but also the significantly redefined and enlarged propagation of faith and culture eventually leading to the birth of humanism. The Western Renaissance was strongly influenced by the Byzantine scholars who revealed to the half-awakened Latins the ancient Greek treasures hidden in the Byzantine libraries. The holy Mass or liturgy which the saints brought to the Slavs became the source of a deep conflict, and later one of the crucial points of Reformation that finally got attention at the Second Vatican Council.

The great scholar and historian T. G. Masaryk, the father of Czechoslovakia, concluded that the aim of the history of every nation is the realization of its ideal of humanity, and it is precisely how the history of the Slavs and their neighbours unfolded. In a way, this has been the quintessential conflict which defined the central history of mankind. It was Duke Rastislav's wish, his legacy for posterity, that other nations imitate the humble Christian faith of the Slavs.

The Byzantine apostles brought not only language, culture, and religion to the backward pagans, but their mission was instrumental in defining the existence of practically all Slavic nations. Moravians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians, Russians--all benefited greatly from this momentous event. Other nations, such as Hungarians, Romanians, Slovenes, and the Baltic nations, also profited directly or indirectly. Ukrainians, the foremost Slavic carrier of the original Byzantine culture until today, have benefitted the most, since the Ukrainian language, script, culture, and liturgy have all retained a close tie to the original Byzantine spirit and religion.

For most of their history (at least a millennium), the culture and art of the Slavs was intimately and exclusively associated with religion and faith, and much of the modern Slavic art is still of the Eastern religious nature. The separation of church and state is a modern concept but even here the saints' Byzantine legacy still challenges the artificial social constructs of modern enlightenment. Both humanism and democracy are Greek in origin and the Slavs, especially the Bohemians, became the foremost champions of democracy and humanism, demanding a meaningful and long overdue reform in the Church. (2)

Finally, after centuries of struggles and doubts, the coming of the Byzantine saints to the West and their visit to Rome legitimized for all times the papal supremacy which was repeatedly challenged both in the East and in the West.

When one of the best poets in the English language, Irish-born William Butler Yeats, published his 1928 poem Sailing to Byzantium, he prefigured the sentiment that was born at the Second Vatican Council. By his own admission, this mystical poem, the apex of Yeats' poetry and thought, was meant to describe the spiritual and intellectual journey of his soul. But in a larger sense the poem beautifully illustrates the conflict and the history that existed between the Western and Eastern worlds since the very beginnings of Christianity, and all the neglect that Byzantium has been subjected to by the jealous and proud Latin West. What is even more important, the poem shows the way towards solving the conflict, as it ends on an optimistic note, prophesying what is to come:

   That is no country for old men.

   Caught in that sensual music all neglect
   Monuments of unageing intellect.

   Monuments of its own magnificence;
   And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
   To the holy city of Byzantium.

   O sages standing in God's holy fire
   As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
   Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
   And be the singing-masters of my soul.

   Once out of nature I shall never take
   My bodily form from any natural thing,
   But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
   Of hammered gold and gold enameling
   To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
   Or set upon a bough to sing
   To lords and ladies of Byzantium
   Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The dual history of the Church with its Greek and Roman roots originated in the fateful decision of Emperor Constantine to move the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople. Repeatedly plundered by Goths, ruined and depopulated, Italy was a pitiful sight caught in a "falling world" as Pope Pelagius described it. The reconquest of Raly by Flavius

Belisarius subjugated Rome to the Byzantines, and the monumental effort of Pope St. Gregory the Great, who spent seven years in Constantinople begging for help, started a long campaign to rebuild the West and to restore the prestige of Rome and the papacy. A proud Latin Roman who despised the barbaric Lombards (Langobards), a Scandinavian tribe which was pushed out of the Elbe (Labe) river region into norther Italy by the advancing Slavs, Gregory also refused to speak Greek and, disillusioned with Byzantine politics, he launched a new course for Western Europe which culminated in the subjugation of the Lombards by the Franks of Charlemagne.

The new Christian world became highly polarized. The Filioque, a Spanish theological innovation added to the Nicene Creed, became a preeminent issue. It was fiercely criticized by the Byzantines, who saw in it not only an imprecise Latin formulation of crucial dogma, but also an attempt by Charlemagne to gain a dominant political position over the "heretical" East. But despite such rivalry and misunderstanding, after centuries of separation, a strange balance or symbiosis developed between Rome and Constantinople.

Christianity made sporadic inroads into the pagan territory in Central Europe following the campaign of Marcus Aurelius, as far as central Slovakia (river Hron and Leugaricio or Trencin), where his famous meditations were written. But it wasn't until after Constantine's edict of Milan in 313 allowed the unrestricted freedom of Christian worship that an obscure bishopric was officially established in Syrmium (Sirmium) in what is today Serbia, bordering the scarcely inhabited Pannonian wilderness, as the Romans called it. The Greeks contemptuously called Illyricum "llyris Barbara," but Naissus (Nis) was the birthplace of Constantine, and it was partly the patriotism of Constantine and his mother Helena, as well as Constantine's grand vision of the world, which compelled him to move the capital of the New Rome to Byzantium, and to elevate Illyricum into one of the four prefectures of the Roman empire. Syrmium, the legendary bishopric seat of St. Andronicus, the relative and fellow-prisoner of St. Paul (Rom 16:7), who with St. Junia had initiated the conversion of the Pannonian pagans, thus became the administrative and religious centre of Illyricum.

The Slavs who migrated into Central Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries were the typical pagans of their time practising shamanism, witchcraft, polytheism, devil-worship, slavery, abortion, infanticide, polygamy, and sharing of women. Their apparent peacefulness and hospitality were later invoked as the origin of democracy and socialism by the Slavophiles, but this was criticized as nonsense by T. G. Masaryk. What the Byzantine accounts described was rather anarchy and the lack of any order, and the tribal collectivism of the non-militant proto-Slavs was a natural necessity due to the lack of any advanced ideas about science, art, property, politics, and warfare. Yet the fertile Slavs, with their eagerness and ability to learn and adapt, gradually overtook their pagan masters (Avars, Bulgars, and the Viking Rus), learned the art of war and became a real threat to both the Eastern and Western empires as they pushed westward and southward into more hospitable, warmer climates.

By 863, Charlemagne's empire was quickly disintegrating into a crude feudal system and the religious and political confrontation with the Byzantine empire and with Rome ended. Several popes tried their best to consolidate the fracturing Frankish empire on which the Latin church relied for its very survival, but the papacy was losing all its credibility. Pope after pope begged the German (East Frank) kings and emperors to restore order in Lombard, Italy and to protect the Church. The local tyrants, kings, and emperors fought each other since Lewis the German (Louis, Ludwig) wrested control of the lands beyond the Rhine from his father Lewis the Pious. Charles the Bald, who took the advice of evil men, also broke peace with his brothers, invaded the territories of his brother Emperor Lothar when he became ill, and crowned himself Augustus, while starving his own French and Spanish kingdoms. It was an era of brutal military campaigns against the barbaric Saxons, Vikings, and the rebellious Slavs who were threatening the stability of the fledgling Western Christianity? In this tumultuous situation two apostles came to the Slavs from the East, like two magi, bringing their revolutionary ideas of Christianity and of the brotherly love among Christian nations for the greater glory of God, long prefiguring Jesuit missions.

Saints Cyril and Methodius were Greek brothers from a noble Thessaloniki family in Macedonia. Not much is known about their mother, and some Slavophiles speculate that she may have been a Slav. Their father Leo was a high-ranking officer who likely died during the military campaign against the Peloponnesian Slavs in 841.

Methodius (c. 815-85) was a strong lad who would have received military training, and he might have been involved in a campaign against the Slavs. He may have studied law, because he was appointed an administrator of a Slavic province in the Balkans. Not much is known with certainty about his early life; he may have been married and had children, but he resigned his post and entered a monastery after some traumatic experience.

Constantine (827-69), known as Cyril only after becoming a monk before his death in Rome, was the youngest and the most gifted of the seven legendary siblings. After their father died, Constantine was brought to Constantinople and taken under the tutelage of Grand Logothete or the Prime Minister Theoctistus, who effectively ruled the empire. (4) Constantine became a brilliant scholar who mastered sciences and languages. Theoctistus was so impressed that he offered his own god-daughter to Constantine with the intention of making him a high ranking official. But seeking a spiritual path, Constantine refused. As the most talented pupil at the Byzantine imperial school he was appointed the chancellor to Patriarch Ignatius. It isn't clear when Constantine was ordained, but it was most likely in Constantinople, perhaps just prior to his Slavic mission.

Constantine didn't like the administrative job, and imitating his favorite saint, the intellectual contemplative and poet Gregory of Nazianzus, he too ran away to a monastery. In 850 Constantine was called back by Theoctistus and appointed professor of philosophy at the university where he succeeded his famous teacher Photius, receiving the title Philosophos, the most prestigious intellectual post in the Empire at the university founded by Constantine the Great. In 851, at the age of twenty-four, Constantine was sent on a peace mission to Baghdad to Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. Peace missions were deemed necessary, an honour, and the Byzantines always chose their best.

These were troubled and complex times also in the Byzantine empire. Armenian Paulicians, the militant gnostic-manichean heretics, were threatening the empire. Empress Theodora, who with Theoctistus' help in 842 ended iconoclasm, dividing the empire internally, and who mercilessly fought the Paulicians, was the regent of her young son Emperor Michael III (840-867). But her brother Bardas' ambition was also to rule. Theoctistus was murdered in 856. Patriarch Ignatius accused Bardas of incest and refused him Holy Communion. Ignatius was forced to resign and a compromise candidate, layman Photius became the Patriarch of Constantinople. But Theodora, supported by Ignatius and the clergy, staged noisy demonstrations. The senate ended Theodora's regency and she was forced to retire into a monastery. The usurper Bardas managed to consolidate his power by overtaking the regency and, representing the teenage drunkard Emperor Michael, Bardas declared himself Caesar, effectively ruling for ten years until 866 when he was murdered by Michael and his peasant friend Basil, a wrestler, who a year later also murdered Michael and became Emperor Basil I, founding a new dynasty in 867.

The intellectuals, including the brilliant Photius and his student Constantine the Philosopher, were often used like pawns by the emperors in their power struggle. Patriarch Ignatius was deposed and Photius became the tool of Bardas and Michael. Pope Nicholas I, to whom Ignatius appealed, excommunicated Photius, and when Bardas and Michael denounced the decision, they received a harsh reply. Pope Nicholas became a supreme judge who had to calm and balance the highly explosive situation that developed. The papacy was caught between the political ambitions of the Eastern and Western rulers, as well as the Eastern Patriarchs and Western archbishops like Hincmar of Rheims, who had their own ideas about secular and ecclesiastical authority.

But it was amazing that all these influential Byzantine power players, including Bardas and the peasant Emperor Basil I, were considered good rulers and administrators, supporters of education, arts, military, and of the good government administration, which undoubtedly stabilized the course of the empire regardless of the family feuds, intrigue, and excommunications. Despite their personal ambitions, the Byzantines shared a common goal: the prosperity of the empire and the salvation of mankind, and ultimately they all supported the Church, including peace missions to the pagans. This was a crucial difference compared to the descendants of Charlemagne, whose crude lawlessness, feuds, treachery and forgeries were destructive, often disregarding the Church's and their own subjects' welfare, misusing the popes and the Church as pawns in their own power struggles. Above all, Charlemagne's sons, the Frank kings of the divided Western empire, did not have a common purpose and the equivalent of the Byzantine law or skilled government administration, and it was not surprising that in such a climate the Western bishops had to exercise their own military power to defend their property and subjects.

Another more dangerous mission was required in 860 to the partly Judaized and Islamicized pagans of the Khazar Crimea. Brothers Constantine and Methodius were chosen by Bardas. They managed to slow down the radicalization of the region, secured peace, and converted many Khazars to Christianity, making them Byzantine allies at the northern borders against the Asiatic invaders. The brothers also found the remains of St. Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome, and these relics, signifying the supremacy of the Roman pontiff, played an important role in their next Slavic mission.

At about the same time the Moravian dux Rastislav, (5) already a Christian, approached the pope of Rome requesting missionaries, but Nicholas I did not respond. Thus in 862 a humble and telling request from Rastislav came to emperor Michael, who with the help of General Petronas, his other uncle, managed to end his regency and consolidated his own power alongside of Bardas:

"Our people has renounced paganism and is observing the Christian law, but we do not have a teacher to explain to us the true Christian Faith in our language in order that other nations even, seeing this, may imitate us. Send us therefore, Master, such a bishop and teacher, because from you emanates always, to all sides, the good law" (Life of Constantine).

Bavaria and Austria were originally Christianized by the Latin and Irish missionaries whom Charlemagne invited to his newly acquired European lands. St. Columbanus, the greatest scholar of the Dark Ages, laid the foundations, and after St. Columbanus converted the Picts, many Irish and Scottish missionaries followed in the footsteps of St. Boniface and St. Gall, establishing missions and monasteries all over the Central Europe. With time their churches and graves in Moravia were reduced to ruins and disappeared, but Moravian artifacts show not only Byzantine but also Irish influences. Until this day the Moravians and Slovaks are grateful to these zealous monks who left their native land and brought their Irish crosses of salvation with them.

The Latin-speaking Irish missionaries brought Christianity to Slavs or Slovieni, but the curious, word-loving and talkative Slavs, whose very name is likely derived from the word "Slovo" ("Word" or "Speaking"), were missing the essence of their new Faith which still had to compete for many centuries with pagan superstition and customs. Besides, the Slav rulers and nobles quickly learned that the Frank and German law, a primitive, unsystematic jumble of various tribal systems, a mind-boggling collection of ad-hoc temporary and permanent commands and regulations, was simply no match for the solid Byzantine Roman law. Charlemagne desperately tried to impose some lays but he succeeded only in the most basic economic, sphered regulating trade and usury. Needless to say, Charlemagne rough, lawless and disunited descendants made no attempts to bring about the much needed unified legal reform which would have stabilized Western Europe.

The first known Slavic Christian church was built in 828 by the pagan dux Pribina in Nitra, Slovakia, perhaps by the monks, and mainly for his Frank Christian wife and merchants. It was consecrated by the Salzburg Archbishop Adalram. Moravian Dux Mojmir (Moimir) also became Christian and the forced mass baptism of Moravians by the Bavarian bishop Reginhar of Passau followed in 831.

Although Svatopluk is today hailed as the legendary ruler of the Great Moravia, it was his uncle Rastislav who had the vision to lay the foundation of the first great state of the Slavs. (5) Being a hostage of King Ludwig the German, and later installed as the Dux of Moravians after his uncle Mojmir rebelled, Rastislav knew first-hand the harshness and the treachery of Frank politics, the fickleness of the German tribal law, and the problems in the early German church with its Eigenkirchen or "proprietary churches" which were later 'reformed' into even more troubling Reichskirche or the German "state church"

This is called the Iron Age in Church history. In the newly emerged feudal system of the proprietary churches the German bishops were the masters of their own estates, financing and building their own churches and monasteries, and this system of propagation of Christianity, which the popes were desperately trying to reform, was responsible for many abuses including simony. French Archbishop Hincmar challenged the authority of the pope to anoint kings, and ruling over his powerful bishops, he tried to make himself a local pope, or a kind of independent patriarch. As knights and military leaders, these bishops also led the armies against the heathens, killing, pillaging, and taking captives as slaves.

The brutal Frank and German nobility and their bishops mixed religion with politics and war, broke and made the Church canons, and jockeyed for the positions of power and prestige. Christianization of the Slavic vassal tribes became not so much a mission of zeal and love for the backward pagans, but rather the necessary stabilization of the frontiers with political and economic aim in mind. The animosity against the Slavs carried until the modern times and found expression in Prussian Pangermanism a millennium later, resulting in Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia.

In Constantinople, despite Constantine's protests, (6) the brothers were again chosen to lead the Moravian mission, and they started by translating the perikopes or Sunday readings from the Holy Scriptures, which are considered the first Slavic literary work The hagiography attributes Constantine's instant invention of the Slavic script to the miraculous enlightenment from God, although Constantine's philological brilliance, some of which he likely learned from the Syrian Islamic scholars in Baghdad, certainly played an important part. The Byzantines did not impose an official liturgical language in their empire and Constantine constructed a new script, called the Glagolitic, or "The Spoken Word," into which he translated the Scriptures and the liturgy?


(1.) John Paul II declared in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) that the "Church must breathe with her two lungs!" signifying the unity of the Western Latin and Eastern Byzantine Christianity and culture. One of the first acts of the Polish pope was to declare Saints Cyril and Methodius the co-patron saints Europe in 1980. Reflecting on the 1880 encyclical Grande Munus of pope Leo XIII, which celebrated the 1000-year anniversary of the saints coming to Great Moravia, the 1985 encyclical Slavorum Apostoli again recapitulated the long history of the saints, starting with the letter of Pope John VIII Industriae Tuae written in 880 to the Moravian Duke Svatopluk by which the papacy first formally approved the use of the vernacular in liturgy.

(2.) The Polish pope was influential at the Second Vatican Council. Another Slav, the Czech born Cardinal Josef Beran, the former Primate and Archbishop of Prague who was imprisoned by the Communist regime in 1949 and eventually exiled to Rome where he died and is buried, was also one of the important moving spirits of the Council in the areas of ecumenism, human dignity, and the freedom of choice in matters of religion, reflecting on the legacy of the Czech Reformation which preceded Luther's German Reformation. Following the conclusions of T. G. Masaryk, Cardinal Beran asked the Council to officially rehabilitate the reformer John Hus. The cardinal also founded in Rome the Czech cultural organization Velehrad.

(3.) Warfare in the Dark Ages was cruel enough, but Charlemagne instituted extra cruel policies and massacres because ordinary punitive measures did not work against the fanatical and fatalistic Saxons and Vikings. Franks and Germans made sure that all the frontier tribes which did not want to submit, including Slavs, or those who later rebelled were repeatedly invaded and plundered by "fire and sword" until their leaders submitted and agreed to enforce Christianization upon their rebellious peoples, often upon death penalty, causing long lasting animosity for centuries after these tribes were Christianized. The meeker Slavs responded much better to the peaceful and educational Byzantine Christianization.

(4.) In the sophisticated government structure of the Byzantines there were four Logothetes, or supra-ministers. At the very top, the most senior government official was Logothetes tou Droumou or the Grand Logothete, in charge of home and foreign affairs, communications, intelligence, diplomacy, and acting like the Prime Minister. Eunuch Theoctistus helped Theophilos' father Michael II to become emperor and thus he became the confidant of Emperor Theophilos and later Empress Theodora, and her main ally against her brother Bardas. Theodora was an Armenian beauty whom young Theophilos chose for his wife in an imperial bride show organized by his mother. It was Theoctistus who effectively ruled Byzantium, ending iconclasm, fighting the Slavs and heretical Paulicians, and organizing diplomatic missions.

(5.) The title "duke" is often used when referring to these pagan kings and princes, or rather chieftains and clan leaders, but the original Latin title dux, plural duces, is more fitting. It was the title of the pagan vassal ruler who swore allegiance to the king or emperor and agreed to pay monetary tribute and homage to his ruler. All Slavic leaders of the period swore allegiance to their masters, indicating their original submission. All Slavs eventually somehow managed to overtake their pagan masters, Avars, Bulgars, and Viking Rus, and the fact is still puzzling historians. However, Rastislav likely saw that such Slavic policy was ineffective with Franks and Germans.

(6.) In the Western Latin chronicles Rastislav was known as Rastiz, or as Rastic in the chronicle of the Italian monastery of Cividale, which Rastislav may have visited. Rastislav was installed as the Dux of Moravia in 846, but later refused to pay his tribute to King Ludwig the German, who in 855 attacked Moravia. Using the ancient fortess Devin or Dovina, Rastislav successfully defended his Slavic realm and in 858 made a pact with Ludwig's son Carolman. Rastislav also attacked Ludwig's ally Pribina and later instituted his nephew Svatopluk as the ruler of the eastern Moravia or Nitrava, asking Pope Nicholas I to send missionaries, since the German priests, acting as German agents or spies, could not be trusted. However, in 862 Carolman had a change of heart and betrayed Rastislav, rejoing his father Ludwig.

(7.) The hagiography of Constantine describes how Emperor Michael and Bardas summoned the Philosopher, their wisest man in their empire, and asked him to lead the mission. Sick and tired as he admitted he was, Constantine agreed, providing there were a written Slavic language, to which the emperor replied that two of his predecessors (presumably emperors Theophilos and Michael II) were trying to find a script for the Slavs, but both failed. Constantine wisely replied: "Who can write a language on water and acquire for himself a heretic's name?"--indicating the intimate knowledge of the situation in Europe and of the problems he would later encounter during the mission.

(8.) There is still a controversy surrounding the origin of Cyrillic and Glagolitic, which was the alphabet invented by Constantine. Compared to the Latin or Greek alphabet, it had 38 letters, 24 from the Greek alphabet, 4 Hebrew letters, and 10 unique letters expressing unique Slavic sounds not found anywhere else. (Additional sounds were expressed by digraphs, doubling the letters, even trigraphs, for example SS which later became the S.) This indicates the richness of the spoken Slavonic still found in modern Slavic languages. Glagolitic or "The Spoken Word" (hlahol or glagol in the Old Slavic meant "to speak") was somewhat similar to the modern Cyrillic script of Russia and Bulgaria. It may have been partly based on the Byzantine work Cryptographia. However, Constantine's alphabet was a new revolutionary discovery perfectly suited to the Slavic spoken words, while the modern Cyrillic is just a mere adaptation of Greek letters. The Glagolitic alphabet matched most of the sounds of the Old Slavonic language, thus preserving the original rich character of the Slavic language. Linguistically, or philosophically, it may have been due to the richness of the Slavic, compared to other more primitive pagan languages, that the Slavs managed to outwit their masters and take over political control initially instituted by Avars, Bulgars, and the Viking Rus. During the Hussite times the Glagolitic was transcribed into Latin alphabet of the modern Czech with diacritics which replaced digraphs and trigraphs, by letters such as A A E E I O O U Y U Y C D L L N R R S T Z

Peter Hala was born and educated in Czechoslovakia. In 1980 his family managed to escape the communist regime and came to Canada. He works at the University of Alberta in computing, automation, and control systems. His interests and hobbies include history, philosophy, mathematics, literature, music, and various outdoor pursuits.
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Author:Hala, Peter
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:4EXMA
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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