Liturgical Year: Saint Sylvester, Pope and Confessor

Saint Sylvester, Pope and Confessor31 December

So far, the only ones we have seen standing round the Crib of our Jesus during this Christmas season 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 among 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 – Saint 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 Saint 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 Nicaea; he organizes 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.

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 Saint 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, etc.:

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 30th 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 to 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 Nicaea, 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 baptized

• 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 Sanday 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 21 years, 10 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 42 Priests, 25 Deacons, and 65 Bishops for various places.

The ancient Liturgical Books of Italy had a Proper Office for Saint Sylvester. We have found, in the Breviary of the old Abbatial, (now, the Collegiate) Church of Saint Barbary, at Mantua, a very beautiful Office; and from this we extract the following Antiphons and Responsories:

• 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.

• Holily did Sylvester administer all things; he propagated the faith, and gave liberty and confidence for the preaching the Gospel in the City, the Mistress of kingdoms.

• He suffered much, and it filled his life with merit; he made many rules, and they proved his wisdom.

• Sylvester was a holy man, and led a life of heaven while on this earth: being a Pontiff of exceeding virtue, he governed the Church with heavenly prudence.

• Being chosen Pontiff of God’s Church, he sought a hiding place on Mount Soracte, that he might escape the cruelty of the tyrant Maxentius; there, he besought God to bless the Church, at length, with peace.

• While hid on the mount, the Apostles Peter and Paul admonish the Emperor to call the Pontiff: Sylvester regenerates Constantine in the saving waters of baptism, and heals him of leprosy.

• Having fully instructed the Emperor Constantine in the faith of Christ, he was the first to publicly consecrate a Church, and it was the Basilica built by the Emperor: he called it Our Saviour’s.

• Sylvester, solicitous for the glory of God and the salvation of men, instructed the people in the knowledge of saving doctrine, and delivered them, in a wonderful manner, from the errors of a wily serpent.

• Convoking the General Council of Nicaea, where there was assembled a mystic number of Bishops, he subverted the machinations of heretics, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

• This is the holy Pontiff, in whose day, Christ gave Peace to the Church, and the Roman Empire prostrated at the feet of a Priest the lofty summit of its ancient glory.

• 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; you who are now exulting in heavenly glory, pray for us to our Lord.

• 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 your prayers, that we may for ever enjoy the blessing of peace.

The Greek Church is enthusiastic in its hymns of praise to Saint Sylvester. In the stanzas we extract from her Menaea, she gives to this great Pope the whole honour of the Nicene Council, and honours him as the conqueror of the Arian heresy.

• Father and Hierarch, Sylvester, holily enlightened by the light of holiness you enlightened the Faithful by your light-giving teachings, to adore the unity of nature in the Three Persons, and did dispell the darkness of heresies. Therefore, we, with great solemnity, joyfully hymn today your glorious memory.

• O Father Sylvester, who carries God with you, you visible pillar of fire that goes before the holy flock, you shade-giving cloud, that ever leads the faithful out of Egyptian errors by your incomparable precepts, we venerate your glorious and most holy memory.

• O Sylvester, divinely speaking Father, by the torrent of your prayers you did sink the many-headed dragon in the mire. Holy and admirable Pontiff, you led thousands of Pagans to God, and humbled the haughty by the astounding miracles you so wisely worked before their eyes. Therefore do we honour and bless you.

• Perfect in your obedience to the Law of God, and admirably versed in the knowledge of the inspired Scriptures, you did teach the truth to the heathen philosophers; you did lead them to confess Christ together with the Father and Spirit, and say: Let us sing to the Lord for he is gloriously magnified.

• Hierarcha inspired of God, Sylvester our Father, you are shown to us as anointing Priests in the Holy Ghost, and enlightening the people, O most sacred Pontiff! You did put the errors of heresy to flight, and did feed the flock, making the waters of holiness to flow upon the pastures of souls that know God.

• By your words, which left no escape, you did unravel the knots of sophistry; you did bind to the faith them that were bound by error, opening their minds by your interpretation of the Scriptures, most blessed Hierarch, our Father.

• By your prayers, O blessed one, you did for ever paralyse and imprison the wicked serpent, who sought to infect with his detestable pestilence them that approached you: you did fasten down the dragons with the seal of the Cross, as with prison-gates and bolts.

Petition to Saint Sylvester

Supreme Pastor of the Church of Christ, you lend to the beauty of the holy Octave of Christmas the lustre of your glorious merits. There you worthily represent the countless choir of Confessors, for it was you who did steer the bark of Peter after the three hundred years’ tempest, leading her with watchful love in her first hours of calm. The pontifical Diadem, reflecting heaven in its gems, sits on your venerable brow. The Keys of the Kingdom of heaven are in your hands; you open it for the admission of the Gentiles, who embraced the faith of Christ; you shut it against the Arians in that august Council of Nicaea, where you preside by your Legates, and to which you give authority, by confirming it with your apostolic approbation. The Furious storms will again soon rage against the Church, and the angry billows of heresy will beat against her; you will then be in the bosom of God; but, together with Saint Peter, you will keep guard over the purity of the Faith of Rome. You will support Julius; you will rescue Liberius; and Athanasius, aided by your prayers, will find a shelter within the walls of Rome.

Under your peaceful reign, Christian Rome receives the reward of her long-endured persecution. She is acknowledged as Queen of Christendom, and her empire becomes the sole empire that is universal. The Son of your pastoral zeal, Constantine, leaves the city of Romulus, which has now become the City of Peter; the Imperial majesty would be eclipsed by that greater one of the Vicar of Christ; he makes Byzantium his capital, leaving Rome to be that of the Pontiff-King. The temples of the false gods become ruins, and make room for the Christian Basilicas, in which are enshrined the Relics of the Apostles and Martyrs. In a word, the Church has triumphed over the Prince of this world, and the victory is testified by the destruction of that Dragon, which infected the air by its poisonous breath.

Honoured with all these wonderful prerogatives, saintly Vicar of Christ, forget not the Christian people who were once your flock. It asks you, on this your Feast, to make it known and love the mystery of the Birth of Jesus. By the sublime Symbol which embodies the Faith of Nicgea, and which you did confirm and promulgate throughout the whole Church – you have taught us to acknowledge this sweet Infant as God of God, Light of Light, begotten not made, Consubstantial to the Father. You bid us to come and adore this Little Child, as He by whom all things were made. Holy Confessor of Christ, vouchsafe to present us to him, as the Martyrs have done, whose Feasts have filled up the days since his Nativity. Pray to him for us, that our desires for true virtue may be fulfilled, that we may persevere in his holy love, that we may conquer the world and our passions, and at length, that we may obtain the Crown of justice, which is to be the reward of our Confessing him before men, and is the only object of our ambition.

Pontiff of Peace, from the abode of rest where you now dwell, look down upon the Church of God, surrounded as she is by implacable enemies, and beseech Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to hasten her triumph. Cast your eye on that Rome which is so dear to you, and which is so faithful in her love of you. Protect and direct her Father, King and Pontiff. May she triumph over the wiles of political intrigue, the violence of tyranny, the craft of heretics, the perfidy of schismatics, the apathy of worldlings, and the cowardice of her own children. May she be honoured, loved, and obeyed. May the sublime dignity of the Priesthood be recognised. May the spiritual power enjoy freedom of action. May the civil authority work hand and hand with the Church. May the Kingdom of God now come, and be received throughout the whole world, and may there be but one Fold and one Shepherd.

Still watch, O holy Sylvester, over the sacred treasure of the Faith, which you did defend, when on earth, against every danger. May its light put out the vapours of man’s proud dreams, those false and daring doctrines which mislead countless souls. May every mortal bow down his understanding to the obedience of faith in the divine Mysteries, without which all human wisdom is but folly. May Jesus, the Son of God, and Son of Mary, be King, by his Church, over the minds and hearts of all men.

Pray for Byzantium, that was once called the New Rome, but which so soon became the capital of heresies, and the scene of everything that could degrade a Christian country. Pray that the days of her deep humiliation may be shortened; that she may again see herself united with Rome; that she may honour Christ and his Vicar; that she may obey, and by her obedience be saved. May the people, misled and debased by her influence and rule, recover their dignity as men, which can only subsist when men have faith, or be regained by a return to the faith.

And lastly, Conqueror of Satan, keep this hellish monster in the prison whither you did drive him; confound his pride and his schemes; let him no longer seduce the people of God’s earth; but may all the Children of the Church, according to the word of Peter,your predecessor, resist him, by the strength of their faith.

– from the book The Liturgical Year: Christmas, volume 1, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870