Saint Sylvester I, Pope
c. Late Third century—335
December 31—Optional Memorial
Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of the Benedictines
A new captain pilots the ship of the Church in calmer seas
One thousand four hundred years before Christ, approximately when Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt, a pharaoh ordered his slaves to hew an enormous obelisk out of a bank of stone. It was the largest monolithic obelisk ever cut. While it was still recumbent, craftsmen carved hieroglyphs up and down its narrow sides. Then, it was hoisted upright to adorn a temple of Aten, a sub-deity of the Egyptian sun god Ra. And there the giant obelisk stood watch over the endless desert, like a lighthouse, for a thousand years. In the mid-fourth century A.D., a pharaoh of the West, the Roman Emperor Constantius II, wanted the obelisk to grace a new city. So it was dragged out of the sands of remote Egypt and placed on a specially constructed ship. It floated down the Nile, across the Mediterranean, and up the Tiber to Rome. This colossal ancient artifact, the largest of its kind in the world, stands today ramrod straight before the Basilica of St. John Lateran. And the name of today’s saint, Pope Sylvester I, is carved into its base.
Little is known of Saint Sylvester, though there are legends. He succeeded to the Chair of St. Peter in 314. This was soon after the military triumph of Constantine and his Edict of Milan granting toleration to Christians. Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. This would not occur until 380. But Constantine did give the Church breathing space. The Church could now simply be herself. And so the faithful poured out of the dark confines of their house churches and into the open-aired basilicas. There were processions, statues erected in public, a new Christian calendar, sermons preached in the open, and proud bishops to lead a grateful people. Pope Sylvester led the Church as it grew by leaps and bounds, becoming the primary institution in the Roman Empire, even replacing the imperial government itself. Sylvester must have been a capable and even-handed leader. As pagan Rome slowly transformed into Christian Rome, any number of missteps could have halted the evolutionary process. But Sylvester and his successors stood confidently at the helm, kept a steady hand on the ship’s wheel, and guided the Barque of Peter to harbor with great tact.
Pope Sylvester did not attend the all-important Council of Nicea in 325, instead sending four legates. Constantine called the Council, kissed the palms of tortured bishops, was present at some of its sessions, and threw a large banquet at its conclusion. The Council was composed almost entirely of bishops and theologians from the East. Saints Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, and Leo were still to come in the West. Real theology was done in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor. Rome was in decline. Even Constantine himself fled Rome and re-established the imperial capital in Constantinople in 330. Yet…the Bishop of Rome was still the jurisdictional and symbolic head of the body of Christ. All looked to him for approbation if not enlightenment. All turned their heads and craned their necks to listen to what he said. The Bishop of Rome had no equal. It was this role that Sylvester fulfilled. He did not generate theology, but he did validate it and stiffen it with institutional force.
The inscription at the base of the Lateran obelisk states that it marks the location where Saint Sylvester baptized Constantine. This is now known to be an error. The religiously ambiguous Constantine was baptized in Northwest Turkey just before he died in 337, two years after Sylvester had passed. Saint Sylvester was buried near the Catacombs of Saint Priscilla. His remains were transferred in the eighth century to a church in the heart of Rome named in his honor, San Silvestro in Capite, where his stone cathedra, or papal throne, can still be seen and his remains still venerated. San Silvestro in Capite was built over the rubble of a pagan temple dedicated to the unconquered sun (sol invictus). It was precisely this Roman god whom Constantine abandoned when he accepted Jesus Christ. And it was the sun god of Egypt who was originally honored by the Lateran obelisk. A cross now crowns the obelisk. Rome’s massive Corpus Christi procession begins every year at the Lateran Basilica near the obelisk. No more pharaohs. No more emperors. No more sun gods. A new leader carries God in his hands, and His blessed people follow in solemn procession.
Saint Sylvester, give to our Holy Father a measure of your steadiness and courage in guiding a people from false to true belief, from darkness to light, and from chains to freedom. Help our Pope to sanctify, shepherd, and govern well in an often hostile atmosphere.