December 31, 2015

December 31 – Optional Memorial of Saint Sylvester I

Pope St. Sylvester and Constantine
Today, the seventh day in the octave of Christmas, the Church celebrates the optional memorial of St. Sylvester I, pope and confessor. Little is known about his life and formative years. He ruled the Church during the reign of Constantine when the Arian heresy and the Donatist schism provoked great controversy. As Supreme Pontiff he convoked the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. Sylvester did not attend the Council of Nicaea in 325, but he was represented by two legates, and he approved the council's decision.

During his pontificate, the great Basilicas were founded in Rome by Constantine; [the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Old St. Peter's Basilica, and several others,] built over the graves of martyrs. Sylvester's papacy lasted from 314 until his death in 335. History testifies that only a strong, wise Pope could have preserved the essential autonomy of the Church in the face of a figure like Emperor Constantine.

St. Sylvester I – A Consequential Papacy

When Pope Melchiades died in January, 314, St. Sylvester was chosen as his successor. He governed the Church for more than twenty-one years, ably organizing the discipline of the Roman Church, and taking part in the negotiations concerning Arianism and the Council of Nicaea. He also sent Legates to the first Ecumenical Council.

During his Pontificate were built the great churches founded at Rome by Constantine, the Basilica and baptistery of the 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. There is no doubt Sylvester helped towards the construction of these churches. He was a friend of Emperor Constantine, convened the first General Council of Nicaea, and gave the Church direction in the new era of peace. He might be called the first "peace Pope" after centuries of bloody persecution. On the Via Salaria Sylvester built a cemeterial church over the Catacomb of St. Priscilla, and it was in this church that he was buried following his death on December 31, 335.

Numerous legends dramatize his life and work, e.g., how he freed Constantine from leprosy by baptism; how he killed a ferocious dragon that was contaminating the air with his poisonous breath. Such legends were meant to portray the effects of baptism and Christianity's triumph over idolatry. For some time the feast of St. Sylvester was a holy day of obligation. The Divine Office notes: He called the weekdays feria, because for the Christian every day is a "free day" [the term is still in use; thus Monday is feria secunda].

Adapted excerpt compiled from Heavenly Friends, Rosalie Marie Levy and The Church's Year of Grace, Pius Parsch.

Collect Prayer

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 guidance we may happily attain life without end. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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