December 31, 2020: POPE ST. SYLVESTER I
December 31, 2020: ST. SYLVESTER I, POPE AND CONFESSOR
The storm of persecution being calmed, the religion of Christ our Lord was spread, in the Pontificate of blessed Sylvester, throughout the entire dominions of the Roman Empire.
Grant, we beseech thee, O Almighty God, that the venerable solemnity of blessed Sylvester, thy Confessor and Bishop, may improve our devotion, and strengthen in us the hopes of salvation. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
O blessed Pontiff, and admirable Pastor of the universal Church! whom the Lord glorified in the sight of all nations, and exalted above the Emperor of Rome; O thou, that art now exulting in heavenly glory, pray for us to our Lord.
So far, the only ones we have seen standing round the Crib of our Jesus, have been Martyrs: Stephen, overwhelmed with the shower of stones; John, the Martyr in heart, who survived his fiery torture; the Holy Innocents, massacred by the sword; Thomas, murdered in his Cathedral;—these are the champions of Christ, who keep guard in the palace of Bethlehem. Yet, all Christians are not called to be Martyrs. Besides this countless battalion of the King's favourite soldiers, there are other troops of sainted heroes which form the heavenly army—and amongst these, there are the Confessors, who conquered the world, without shedding their blood in the combat. Though the place of honour in the service of the King, belongs to the Martyrs, yet did the Confessors fight manfully for the glory of his name and the spreading of his Kingdom. The palm is not in their hands, but they are crowned with the crown of justice, and Jesus, who gave it to them, has made it be part of his own glory that they should be near his throne.
The Church would therefore grace this glorious Christmas Octave with the name of one of her Children, who should represent, at Bethlehem, the whole class of her unmartyred Saints. She chose a Confessor—St. Sylvester: a Confessor who governed the Church of Rome, and, therefore, the universal Church; a Pontiff, whose reign was long and peaceful; a Servant of Jesus Christ adorned with every virtue, who was sent to edify and guide the world immediately after those fearful combats, that had lasted for three hundred years, and in which millions of Christians had gained victory by martyrdom, under the leadership of Thirty Popes—predecessors of St. Sylvester—and they, too, all Martyrs.
So that, Sylvester is messenger of the Peace, which Christ came to give to the world, and of which the Angels sang on Christmas Night. He is the friend of Constantine; he confirms the Council of Nicӕa; he organises the discipline of the Church for the new era on which she is now entering—the era of Peace. His predecessors, in the See of Peter, imaged Jesus in his sufferings; Sylvester represented Jesus in his triumph. His appearance during this Octave reminds us, that the Divine Child who lies wrapt in swaddling-clothes, and is the object of Herod's persecution, is, notwithstanding all these humiliations, the Prince of Peace, the Father of the world to come (Isaias, ix. 6).
Let us read the history of Sylvester's peaceful Pontificate, as related by the Church in her Breviary. The character of our work excludes purely critical discussions, and we, therefore, say nothing of the objections that have been raised against the Emperor Constantine's having received Baptism, in Rome, at the hands of St. Sylvester. It is sufficient for us to tell our readers, that the Roman tradition, regarding that event, has been adopted by the most learned men, such as Baronius, Schelstrate, Bianchini, Marangoni, Vignoli, &c.
Sylvester, a Roman by birth, and son of Rufinus, was brought up, from childhood, by the priest Cyrinus. He imitated his master by his learning and a good life, and, when in his thirtieth year, was ordained Priest of the holy Roman Church, by Pope Marcellinus. He surpassed the rest of the clergy in the admirable manner wherein he performed his sacred duties, and was chosen as the successor of Pope Melchiades, under the reign of the Emperor Constantine. This Emperor, having been advised by his physicians to seek the cure of his leprosy by bathing in infants’ blood, was visited in his sleep by the holy Apostles Peter and Paul. They bade him refuse the sinful remedy of the bath, if he desired to be cleansed from his leprosy, and go to Sylvester, who was then hiding on mount Soracte; that having been regenerated in the saving waters of baptism, he should give orders that Churches, after the manner of the Christians, should be built in every part of the Roman empire; and that he should destroy the idols of the false gods, and worship the true God. Constantine, therefore, obeying the heavenly admonition, caused the most diligent search to be made for Sylvester, and, when found, to be brought to him. This being done, and the Pontiff having shown Constantine the portraits of the two Apostles he had seen in his sleep, the Emperor was baptised, and healed, and became exceedingly zealous for the defence and propagation of the Christian religion.
By the persuasion of the holy Pontiff, Constantine also built several Basilicas, which he enriched with sacred images, and most princely donations and gifts: he, moreover, granted permission to the Christians publicly to erect churches, which, previously, they were forbidden to do. Two Councils were held during the reign of this Pontiff: firstly, that of Nicӕa, over which presided his Legates; Constantine was present, and 318 Bishops were assembled there; the holy and Catholic faith was explained, and Arius and his followers were condemned; the Council was confirmed by Sylvester, at the request of all the Fathers assembled: the second was that of Rome, at which 284 Bishops were present, and there, again, Arius was condemned.
Sylvester also passed several decrees most useful to the Church of God. For example: That the Chrism should be blessed by a Bishop only; That the Priest should anoint the crown of the head of the person he baptised; That Deacons should wear Dalmatics in the church, and a linen ornament on the left arm; That the Sacrifice of the Altar should not be celebrated excepting on a linen veil. He laid down the length of time, during which, they who received Orders, should exercise the functions belonging to each Order, before passing to a higher grade. He made it illegal for a layman to be the public accuser of a cleric, and forbade a cleric to plead before a civil tribunal. The names of Saturday and Sunday were to be still used; but all the other days of the week were to be called Ferias, (Second Feria, Third Feria, and the rest,) as the Church had already begun to call them; hereby signifying, that the clergy should put aside all other cares, and spend every day in the undisturbed service of God. To this heavenly prudence, wherewith he governed the Church, he ever joined the most admirable holiness of life, and charity towards the poor. For instance, he arranged, that those among the clergy who had no means, should live with wealthy members of the clergy; and, again, that everything needed for their maintenance, should be supplied to Virgins consecrated to God. He governed the Church twenty-one years, ten months, and a day. He was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla, on the Salarian Way. He seven times gave ordinations in the December month; the number of the ordained was, forty-two Priests, twenty-five Deacons, and sixty-five Bishops for various places.
Life of Pope St. Sylvester I.
The Roman Martyrology speaks of the holy Pope, St. Sylvester, as follows: “At Rome, the birth-day of the holy Pope, Sylvester, who baptized the Emperor, Constantine the Great, confirmed the general Council of Nice, and who, after having accomplished many other holy works, ended his life peacefully.” St. Sylvester was a Roman, born of Christian parents, and carefully instructed in religion and all necessary knowledge by the priest, Carinus. To the strangers who came to Rome to perform their devotions, he showed all kindness. Tarquinius, the prefect, thought that Sylvester had gained much money in this manner, and calling him into his presence, menaced him with the most cruel tortures, in case he refused to bring him all he had. Sylvester looked at him and said: “This night you will die; how can you, therefore, fulfil your menaces?” And, in truth, Tarquinius was suffocated that night from swallowing a fish-bone; hence Sylvester was released from the prison into which he was cast. After the death of Pope Melchiades, he was unanimously elected to be the head of the Church. This was in the reign of Constantine, who already at that time greatly favored the Christians; but as he was engaged in warfare away from Rome, the pagan officers began again to persecute the faithful. Sylvester, advised by the clergy at Rome, left the city and went to Mount Soracte, where he dwelt in a cave to which all Christians had admittance. There the holy Father offered his tears to heaven, with humble prayers, that the Almighty, for the welfare of Christendom, would end the persecution. His prayer was heard. Constantine the Emperor, became leprous over his whole body, and his physicians and the idolatrous priests advised him to bathe in the blood of infant children. On the following night, in his sleep, there appeared to him two venerable old men, who told him to call the high-priest of the Christians, from Mount Soracte, who would prescribe for him a much more wholesome bath. Sylvester was called, and, being informed of the vision, he showed the Emperor the pictures of the two holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, in which Constantine immediately recognized the two venerable men whom he had seen in his sleep. As the holy Pope informed him farther, that the wholesome bath, of which the Apostles had spoken, was no other than the bath of regeneration, or holy Baptism, the Emperor showed himself ready to receive it, and having been sufficiently instructed in the faith, he was baptized to the great joy of the Pope and all the faithful. By the advice of the Saint, the Emperor erected many magnificent churches, and ornamented them splendidly, and gave permission to the Christians to build temples to the Lord wherever they desired. In the reign of this Pope, the first General Council was held at Nice, in which the doctrine of Arius was anathematised. The Papal nuncio presided over it, and the Emperor, who liberally paid the travelling expenses of all poor bishops, was present, not as a superior, but only as a protector. He sat the last in rank, and upon a low chair. The esteem in which he held the clergy may be learned from a memorable speech he made there, in which he said: “If I should surprise a priest in an actual sin, I would cover it with my purple, and endeavor to conceal it, from esteem of the priesthood.” The decrees of the Council were confirmed by the Pope at Rome, and received by all the faithful. Many other things done by St. Sylvester for the welfare of the Church, are related by the historians of his life. He reigned over the Church 21 years and some months, and died a peaceful and happy death, rejoicing that he was going to the Lord.
Another account of Pope St. Sylvester I.
St. Sylvester, whom God appointed to govern his holy church in the first years of her temporal prosperity and triumph over her persecuting enemies, was a native of Rome, and son to Rufinus and Justa. According to the general rule with those who are saints from their cradle, he received early and in his infancy the strongest sentiments of Christian piety, from the example, instructions, and care of a virtuous mother, who for his education in the sound maxims and practice of religion, and in sacred literature, put him young into the hands of Charitius, or Carinus, a priest of an unexceptionable character and great abilities. Being formed under an excellent master, he entered among the clergy of Rome, and was ordained priest by Pope Marcellinus, before the peace of the church was disturbed by Dioclesian, and his associate in the empire. His behaviour in those turbulent and dangerous times recommended him to the public esteem, and he saw the triumph of the cross by the victory which Constantine gained over Maxentius within sight of the city of Rome, on the 28th of October, 312. Pope Melchiades dying in January, 314, St. Sylvester was exalted to the pontificate, and the same year commissioned four legates, two priests and two deacons, to represent him at the great council of the Western church, held at Aries, in August, in which the schism of the Donatists, which had then subsisted seven years, and the heresy of the Quartodecimans were condemned, and many important points of discipline regulated in twenty-two canons. These decisions were sent by the council before it broke up, with an honourable letter, to Pope Sylvester, and were confirmed by him, and published to the whole church. The general council of Nice was assembled against Arianism in 325. Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret, say that Pope Sylvester was not able to come to it in person on account of his great age, but that he sent his legates. Gelasius of Cyzicus mentions that in it “Osius held the place of the Bishop of Rome, together with the Roman priests Vito and Vincentius.” These three are named the first in subscriptions of the bishops in the editions of the acts of that council, and in Socrates, who expressly places them before Alexander, patriarch of Alexandria, and Eustathius, patriarch of Antioch. St. Sylvester greatly advanced religion by a punctual discharge of all the duties of his exalted station during the space of twenty-one years and eleven months; and died on the 31st of December, 335. He was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla. St. Gregory the Great pronounced his ninth homily on the gospels on his festival, and in a church which was dedicated to God in his memory by Pope Symmachus. Pope Sergius II translated his body into this church, and deposited it under the high altar. Mention is made of an altar consecrated to God in his honour at Verona, about the year 500; and his name occurs in the ancient Martyrology called St. Jerom's, published by Florentinius, and in those of Bede, Ado, Usuard, &c. Pope Gregory IX, in 1227, made his festival general in the Latin church; the Greeks keep it on the 10th January.
After a prodigious effusion of Christian blood almost all the world over, during the space of three hundred years, the persecuting kingdoms at length laid down their arms, and submitted to the faith and worship of God crucified for us. This ought to be to us a subject of thanksgiving. But do our lives express this faith? Does it triumph in our hearts? It is one of its first precepts that in all our actions we make God our beginning and end, and have only his divine honour and his holy law in view. All our various employments, all our thoughts and designs, must be referred to and terminate in this, as all the lines drawn from the circumference of a circle meet in the centre. We ought, therefore, so to live that the days, hours, and moments of the year may form a crown made up of good works, which we may offer to God. Our forgetfulness of him who is our last end, in almost all that we do, calls for a sacrifice of compunction at the close of the year; but this cannot be perfect or acceptable to God, unless we sincerely devote our whole hearts and lives to his holy love for the time to come. Let us therefore examine into the sources of former omissions, failures, and transgressions, and take effectual measures for our amendment, and for the perfect regulation of all our affections and actions for the future, or that part of our life which may remain.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Christmas, Vol. I, Edition 1868;
The Lives of the Saints, Rev. F.X. Weninger D.D., S.J. Vol. II, Permissu Superiorum, 1876;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
O shining Light and Brightness, blessed and most holy Sylvester! in whose time, the clouds of persecution were scattered over the heads of the Faithful, and the calmness of peace appeared: help us by thy prayers, that we may for ever enjoy the blessing of peace.
Pope St. Sylvester I, pray for us.