December 30, 2017

Saint Sylvester I, Pope and Confessor

St. Sylvester I and Constantine

(In 2017, this feast is superseded by the Sunday liturgy.) 

December 31st is the optional memorial of Saint Sylvester I, the 4th century pope and confessor, whose papacy saw the end of the initial period of Christian persecution. He guided the Church during the reign of Emperor Constantine when the Arian heresy and the Donatist schism had lead to great discord. He convened the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and oversaw the building of Rome’s magnificent Basilicas. Only a strong and wise man could have preserved the autonomy of the Church in the face of such a looming and powerful figure that was Constantine.

Saint Sylvester, a native Roman, was chosen by God to govern His Church during the initial years of her temporal prosperity and the triumph over her persecuting enemies. Pope Melchiades died in January, 314, and Sylvester was chosen as his successor. He governed the Church for over twenty-one years, ably organizing the discipline of the Roman Church, and taking part in the debate surrounding Arianism and the Council of Nicaea to which he also sent his official delegates.

During his consequential 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. No doubt Sylvester helped towards the construction of these churches. He was a friend of Emperor Constantine, confirmed the first General Council of Nicaea (325), and gave the Church a new discipline for the emerging era of tranquility after centuries of bloody persecution. He also established the Roman school of singing. On the Via Salaria he built a cemeterial church over the Catacomb of St. Priscilla, and it was in this church that he was buried when he died in Christ, on December 31, 335.

Numerous legends dramatize his holy life and ministry, especially 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 intended to portray the effects of baptism and Christianity's triumph over idolatry. For a long time the feast of Saint Sylvester was a holy day of obligation. The Divine Office observes: Pope St. Sylvester 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).

Come, O Lord, to the help of your people, sustained by the intercession of Pope St. 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 and with the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever. Amen. Pope St. Sylvester, wise and able leader of God's holy Church, intercede for us.

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