|Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine|
December 31st, is the optional memorial of Saint Sylvester I (??? - 335), the 4th century pontiff, who guided the Church during a period of violent persecution and challenges to doctrine at the hands of various heretics. According to legend, he baptized Emperor Constantine. Born in Rome, the son of devout parents Rufinus and Justa, he was instructed in Christian piety by his virtuous mother. Later, under the guidance of Carinus, a priest of great ability, Sylvester learned the truths and practice of religion in studying Sacred Scripture. Entering the Roman clergy, he was ordained a priest by Pope Marcellinus on the eve of widespread Christian persecution under Diocletian. Sylvester's papacy saw trial and triumph.
The feast day of St. Sylvester is one of the oldest in the Church’s calendar, so great was his witness in the minds of the laity. His exemplary piety and concern for others, particularly the poor, endeared him to the faithful. He is considered both a confessor and a martyr of the Faith. His staunch defense of orthodoxy and personal fortitude, amid the immense turmoil of doctrinal controversies proved to be a singular grace preserving the Church from error, discord and disunity.
Elected pope in 314, upon the death of Pope Miltiades, he was forced to contend with the Arian heresy and the Donatist schism which threatened to tear the Church apart. Although he did not attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Sylvester was represented by two legates, Vitus and Vincentius, and he approved the council's decision. During his Pontificate the great churches founded in Rome by Constantine were constructed — the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of the Sessorian palace (Santa Croce), the Church of St. Peter in the Vatican, and several cemeterial churches over the graves of martyrs. Sylvester gave the Church a new discipline in the peace that followed the Diocletian persecution.
Moreover, Constantine confirmed the Pope as the prelate above all other bishops. Pope Sylvester, in return, offered the crown of his accord to Emperor Constantine, who abandoned Rome to the pope and took up residence in Constantinople. In this manner, Pope Sylvester established the Church's autonomy and secured the right of his successors to conduct the Church independent of the Roman Empire.
His twenty-one year tenure as Bishop of Rome was consequential for numerous reasons. In addition to protecting the orthodox Catholic Faith in the face of heresy and schism, Sylvester determined that bishops had the exclusive right to consecrate chrism, instructed priests, when baptizing, also were to anoint with chrism, established that bread was to be consecrated as Eucharist only on a linen corporal, established that those ordained should be stable in that order before taking a higher order, instructed that the laity should not sue the clergy, instructed the clergy should not sue one another in civil court, called the 1st and 7th days of the week the "Lord’s Day" and the "Sabbath", and helped to establish the Roman school of singing. Of equal importance, was his life of selfless humility
St. Sylvester died on December 31, 335, and was buried in the church he built on the Via Salaria over the Catacomb of St. Priscilla. Later, his remains were moved to the church of Saint Symmachus. His life and work were dramatized in stories about how he cured Constantine from leprosy by baptism, or how he slayed a fierce dragon that contaminated the air with its poisonous breath. Such legends were meant to show the power of Baptism and Christianity's victory over idolatry. Come, O Lord, to the help of your people, sustained by the intercession of Pope Saint Sylvester, so that, running the course of this present life under your most benevolent guidance, we may happily attain the life without end that is heaven.