Weninger’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Sylvester, Pope, and Saint Melania, the Younger

polychromed wood statue of Pope Saint Sylvester I by Domëne Moling, mid-18th century; parish church of Saint Genesius in La Val, Tyrol, Italy; photographed on 25 October 2013 by Wolfgang Moroder; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

The Roman Martyrology speaks of the holy Pope, Saint 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.

Saint 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, fulfill 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 ad- mittance. 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 Saint 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.

We have a bright example of many virtues, especially of chastity, disregard of all things temporal, zeal to labor for the honor of God, and charity to the poor, in Saint Melania, called the Younger, to distinguish her from another Melania, who is surnamed the Elder.

Melania, the Younger, was born at Rome, where her parents not only belonged to the first nobility, but were also considered the richest in the city., She admired virginal chastity from her early youth, and desired to remain a virgin; but her parents forced her to marry Pinian, a noble and wealthy youth. She became the mother of two children, the first of whom lived scarcely a year, and the second died soon after it had been baptized. This taught Pinian the vanity of all earthly happiness; and although he had only reached his 24th year, and Melania was but 20, he agreed with her to live in future in perpetual continence, and to employ the large fortune which their children would have inherited, for the honor of God, for the maintenance of the clergy, for the consolation of the poor and for other good works. As soon as they had made this, resolution, they chose a dwelling, out of the city, Upon one of their estates, and served God and their neighbor unostentatiously. They sold the estates which they possessed in Rome and other places in Italy, and spent the money to relieve the poor, to build and endow churches and convents, and to maintain priests and religious. After this, they sailed to Sicily and Africa, where they also possessed valuable estates, and after selling them, they intended to continue their charitable and religious undertakings. On one island where they landed, they ransomed many Christian captives from slavery to the infidels. At Tagaste, where Saint Alipinus, a friend of Saint Augustine, was bishop, they built two convents, one for women, and one for men. Into one Pinian went, and into the other, Melania. Seven years they lived there in the exercises of the most noble virtues. Melania fasted daily until evening, when she partook only of bread and water, or of some herbs seasoned with a little oil. Afterwards she ate only once every two days, then every three days, until finally once every week. All admired so extraordinary a severity, in which nobody was able to follow her. She devoted the whole night to prayer and contemplation, except two hours which she gave to sleep, lying on a straw mattrass on the floor. During the day, she also employed many hours in prayer, and the rest in work, which consisted of sewing and mending clothes for the poor, in visiting the sick and needy, in assisting the suffering, and in copying devout books for the welfare of men. After seven years, she had a great desire to go to Jerusalem and visit the holy places. Hence, she travelled with Pinian, her spouse, and Albina, her mother, from Tagaste to Egypt, and arrived in Alexandria, where she was detained by sickness. On her recovery, the holy pilgrims proceeded to Jerusalem. The devotion with which Melania visited the holy places can hardly be told. Every evening she went to the sepulchre of Christ, and remained there until morning. Her love for the Holy Land became such that she resolved to remain there. Hence, she had a little cottage built on Mount Olivet, where she lived for fourteen years a most holy and religious life. Her spouse did the same in a monastery at Jerusalem. The reputation of the holiness of Melania drew many widows and virgins to her, who desired to live under her guidance. To this end, she built a convent and a church at Jerusalem, and received all those who came to her. She would never take upon herself the office of Superior, but waited on the others as though she were a most lowly servant; but she untiringly instructed them, both by word and work, how to serve the Lord. The death of her pious mother, Albina, and of her spouse, Pinian, she bore with perfect submission to the divine will, and thinking that she would soon follow them, she redoubled her zeal in doing good. While all her thoughts were directed to her great journey into Eternity, she was induced to take another earthly journey. Volusian, her cousin, had been sent from Rome to the court of Constantinople, and becoming very sick there, desired to see Melania, and had written to her to that effect. Melania undertook the wearisome voyage, desiring to convert Volusian, who was still a heathen and addicted to many vices. No sooner, therefore, had she arrived at Constantinople than she hastened to her sick cousin. Seeing her emaciated by fasting and the austerity of her life, he cried, full of surprise: “O dear Melania! how different you look from what you were! How your figure, your whole appearance has changed!” “Learn from it, my dear cousin,” said Melania, “what I think of the future life and eternal happiness; for I surely would not have esteemed so lightly all temporal honor, would not have divested myself of all earthly riches, nor have treated my body so severely, had I not surely believed that I should come into the possession of greater honors, riches and joys.” These words made a deep impression upon Volusian, and as Melania earnestly exhorted him to become a Christian and do penance, he received holy baptism, and soon after died a peaceful death. Melania, happy at this, was not satisfied with having opened heaven to only one soul. At that period, there were in Constantinople many heretics, who called themselves Nestorians. With these Melania disputed daily for several hours, as she not only spoke the Greek language, but was also well instructed in the Christian faith. Many of the heretics were brought back by her into the pale of the true Church. She gave also many wholesome admonitions to the Emperor Theodosius and his Empress Eudoxia, who had called her to their court After this, she returned to the convent at Jerusalem, where God soon revealed to her that her end was approaching, with the comforting assurance that He would reward her with eternal goods, for the temporal goods she had employed in His service. The joy that filled Melania’s heart at this revelation, the reader may easily imagine. But she left nothing undone to prepare herself worthily for her last hour. She once again visited the holy places with great devotion, and passed the Christmas in the stable at Bethlehem, where our Lord had been born. Returning to the convent, she became sick, desired to receive the holy Sacraments, and after they had been administered to her, she gave her last instructions to her religious. She was- visited by many who lamented her departure. She herself, however, said, with great fortitude: “The Lord’s will be done!” After these words, she gave her soul, ornamented with so many extraordinary virtues, into the hands of her Creator, on the last day of December, in the year 438, according to Baronius and several others. Her tomb was glorified with many miracles, and her holy life became known all over the Christian world.

Practical Considerations

• Both Saint Sylvester and Saint Melania passed their whole lives in the service of the Lord. They were careful to avoid sin; unwearied in the practice of good works; patient in persecutions, trials and crosses. How greatly this must have consoled them in their last hour! How happy both must now be in heaven!

The feast day for these saints ends the year. If it also proved the end of your life, would you be as happy as these two Saints? Would you have well-founded hopes to participate in the joys of heaven? Consider how you have passed this year, and all the preceding ones, and you will be enabled to answer the foregoing question. You have had, in this year, 12 months, or 52 weeks, which are 365 days or 8760 hours! How have you passed these? Can you say truthfully, that you have employed the 20th part of them to the end for which they were given you by the Almighty? How have you employed so many opportunities to do good, which you had? Have you been careful in avoiding sin? Have you practised good works? Have you borne, with Christian patience, all that God has laid upon you? Have you, in one word, been diligent and unwearied in the service of God and in working out your, salvation? If you were able to answer all these questions affirmatively, I could assure you that you have well-founded hopes of eternal salvation, should you die today; but on the contrary, anxiety and fear must befall you, if you are obliged to say, with the wicked man: “I have had empty months.” (Job 7) Empty in good works, empty in merits, but full of indolence, full of sin, full of vice, or, as the sinner said on his death-bed: “But now I remember the evils that I did.” (1st Maccabees 6) I have done much evil, but little good, and the little good I have done, was done without earnestness, without zeal. Oh! such confessions can give to a dying person no consolation, no satisfaction, but only extreme anxiety, and may even bring him to despair. To have served the Lord zealousalv to have labored earnestly for the salvation of our soul, to have avoided sin, or sincerely repented of it when committed; and to have constantly practised good works, this will give consolation and satisfaction to us in our dying hour, and hope to enter heaven. Endeavor so to conduct yourself during the following year, that you may have this consolation and hope, when you are dying.

• Saint Sylvester and Saint Melania received many special graces from heaven, and used them to the hon- or of God, the salvation of their own souls, and that of others. Can you complain that you have not received, above thousands of others, especial graces from God? Certainly not. But God can complain of you that you have not employed them to your salvation. Let your thoughts go back only over this one year which ends today. Can you count the benefits which God has bestowed on your soul and body, in preference to many thousands, although you have not deserved them? And if He had done nothing but preserved your life until this hour, that you might not die in your sins; if He had given you nothing but so much time for penance and so many opportunities to work out your salvation, He would have shown Himself much more merciful and gracious towards you than towards thousands of others, whom He has called, in this year, laden with sin, into the other world. How have you conducted yourself towards God? What use have you made of His graces and mercies? How have you manifested your thankfulness? Is it possible that you can think of it without fear, without shame? Ah! your constant indolence in the service of the Almighty, and more than that, the many and not small sins you have committed, are no signs of gratefulness, but of great wickedness.

Employ at least this day in humble gratitude for the many benefits which you have received during the year, and in deep contrition for your ingratitude and wickedness. Give due thanks to the Almighty for all His graces and benefits. Repent, with your whole heart, and, if possible, with tears of blood, of your many sins. As thanksgiving for so many graces, as atonement for so many sins, offer to the Lord all that which has been done by others to His honor during the year, but above all offer Him a contrite and humble heart, which, on this day, resolves to serve Him in future with zeal and constancy. Recite, in thanksgiving, the Ambrosian hymn of praise: “We praise thee, O God, etc.,” and in atonement for your sins, the 50th psalm, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy, etc.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weninger, DD, SJ. “Saint Sylvester, Pope, and Saint Melania, the Younger”. Lives of the Saints, 1876. CatholicSaints.Info. 4 June 2018. Web. 19 February 2019. <>