Saints of the Day – Sylvester (Silvester) I, Pope

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

Born in Rome, Italy; died there in 335; feast day in the East is January 2. The Liber Pontificalis says that Silvester was the son of a Roman named Rufinus. Sylvester rejoiced at his good fortune in succeeding Saint Miltiades, who died on January 10, 314. The year before, Sylvester was a simple priest in Rome, attached to the parish of Equitius and with some sort of relationship to Pope Saint Miltiades, as he had previously been in the entourage of Pope Saint Marcellinus.

On January 31, 314, Sylvester, Roman citizen, took the chair of Saint Peter, a few days after his election and after Emperor Constantine granted toleration to the Christian Church by enacting the Edict of Milan in 313. It was an easy succession. Sylvester did act as counselor and spiritual director of Constantine.

In consequence an extraordinary fable arose about his pontificate. It is said that Constantine had been told by his doctor that the best way to cure leprosy was to bathe in the blood of children. A vision in which SS Peter and Paul appeared to the emperor charging him instead to seek baptism at the hands of Sylvester changed Constantine’s mind. Sylvester baptized him; the emperor was healed; and in gratitude granted the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica (of course this is not true; Constantine postponed his baptism until his deathbed). These lands became known as the Donation of Constantine and formed the basis of the future Papal States.

Nevertheless, even while Miltiades was still alive, Constantine donated large tracts of land in and around Rome for the building of basilicas. Christians had been building small, everyday places of worship in Rome since the 3rd century but Constantine envisioned one large enough to hold the entire clergy and a major portion of the population of the city, as well as basilicas built over the tombs of the most illustrious martyrs. From the Imperial Treasury, Constantine gave Miltiades the Lateran Palace as his residence.

That Sylvester was not the founder of the pontifical monarchy has been suspected since the 8th century and acknowledged since the 15th. Many Romans looked with suspicion on the impious legalization of Christianity; it marked the end of a glorious tradition. (Remember Christians had been persecuted because of their impiety, i.e., refusal to offer sacrifices to the gods who protected Rome and its empire.)

Sylvester’s own virtues must have been considerable, if only because he is one of the first Christians who did not die a martyr and yet was honored as a saint (there were a few others). He sent legates to the Council of Arles to deal with the Donatist dispute. The bishops there commended Sylvester for not coming in person but instead remaining in the place “where the Apostles daily sit in judgement.”

Arianism arose during Sylvester’s pontificate. Arius, priest of Alexandria, Egypt, began to teach doubtful propositions concerning the mystery of the Trinity. Constantine became aware of it and sent Bishop Hosius of Cordova to investigate. It was Constantine, encouraged by Hosius and the Eastern episcopate, who took the initiative to convene the first ecumenical council in Nicaea, Bithynia, in 325, to consider the issue. The council was attended by about 220 bishops, nearly all of whom were orientals. Constantine presided and invited Sylvester to share the honor but Sylvester remained in Rome and sent legates to Nicaea – Vincent and Victor. The presiding Western bishop, Hosius of Cordova, also represented the holy father. The council condemned the heresy of Arius. There is no record that Sylvester formally confirmed the signature of his legates to the acts of the council.

Should Sylvester be berated for not upholding the primacy of the pope testified to earlier by Saint Irenaeus and Saint Cyprian of Carthage? No, the new conditions were mystifying. The Church was moving into a new period. The role of the pope in a persecuted Church was quite different from that of the emperor’s Church. As long as the emperor arranged things for the better, perhaps Sylvester should remain uninvolved and implicitly delegate his authority.

Unfortunately, Constantine eventually made a mess of theology and botched up most of the good work he had done. Sylvester, with the bad habits of tolerance he had acquired, reacted too timidly – or not at all. The influence of the beneficial Hosius gave way to that of the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and Constantine threw the Church into confusion. It was Eusebius who baptized Constantine on his deathbed.

Sylvester also set himself the task of creating churches worthy of the faith in the city of Rome. He either restored or founded the churches of Saint Peter on Vatican Hill, Saint Lawrence-Outside- the-Walls, and Santa Croce. His ancient episcopal chair and his mitre – the oldest one still to survive – can today be sen in the church of San Martino ai Monti, which he built over a house near the Baths of Diocletian used for worship during the years of persecution. Saint Sylvester also built a church at the cemetery of Priscilla on the Salerian Way.

It is probable that it was to Sylvester, rather than to Miltiades, that Constantine gave the Lateran Palace. Sylvester made the basilica of Saint John Lateran his cathedral. There you can still see the famous mosaic commissioned by Pope Leo III (reigned 795- 816). In the middle stands Jesus surrounded by the 12 Apostles, and at each side two parallel scenes: Jesus gives the keys to Saint Sylvester with one hand and, with the other, the flag to Constantine; on the other side Saint Peter hands the pallium to Leo III and the flag to Charlemagne. What is the significance?

Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus, from 303 neglected to apply the anti-Christian edicts that were still in effect. Humanitarianism and political realism were at the root of this tolerance: In spite of three centuries of legal and bloody persecution, Christianity triumphed everywhere and even succeeded in erecting a house of its own in Rome. Thus, it was easier and wiser to tolerate it, perhaps even give it legal standing, and make use of its strength and unity. That is the situation inherited by Constantine, who was racked by metaphysical, and perhaps mystical, concerns. He seriously wondered if God existed and, if He did, who might He be. This personal problem for Constantine was capital for Sylvester.

Constantine started with a religion that had 36 gods and goddesses and tried to put some order into this world. But once direction had been given, it seemed insufficient to him and he was tempted to abandon Olympus for a more solid theology.

Around 310, Constantine dreamed of a universe guided by a single God, a mysterious intelligence that dominates all beings. Around 312, he had the impression that the God of the Christians, the single God of the religion that resisted all massacres, could be the God he sought. Around October 10 that year, a rare astronomical phenomenon was visible, and Constantine, anxious to read God’s message, could not help but see it. The planets Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter, and some neighboring stars, formed a cross in the sky that was like the cross of the Christians. Perhaps in addition, an inner voice of grace made Constantine understand that this sign of the Christians was the sign of the true God he was seeking.

At the end of 312, Constantine wrote to Maxim Daia to ask him to stop the persecutions in Asia Minor. In January 313, Constantine issued a decree directing restoration of confiscated goods to the Christians in North Africa.

February 313 saw the first Augustus Constantine and his imperial lieutenant Licinius (in the East) signing the landmark Edict of Milan. The edict stipulated freedom of conscience and cult for the Christians and others, and restitution to the Christian communities of the goods that had been confiscated from them by the State.

That same April Constantine gave instructions to African officials in favor of the Christian clergy and places of worship. During the summer he donated land to various churches, especially in Rome. That October he conceded the munera civila to the whole Catholic clergy of the Empire.

Sylvester died before Constantine and was buried on December 31, 335, in the cemetery of Priscilla on the via Salaria. But his tomb and the epitaph that adorned it were destroyed when the Arian Lombards passed through. The major part of his remains were translated in 761 by Pope Paul I to San Silvestro in Capite, now the national church of English Catholics in Rome.

The cultus for Sylvester did not arise for another 150 years, when Pope Saint Symmachus attributed two Roman councils to Sylvester and had a mosaic placed behind the episcopal throne in the Equitius honoring his predecessor. The Eastern Church, however, celebrates him also with the title “isapostole,” equal to the apostles, on May 21.

So, through the obscure lense of time Sylvester appears almost mute, impassive, yet 300 laws concerned with justice, equity, and an evangelical purity were passed during his 25-year reign. He is considered a great pope in the memory he left to his close successors. Perhaps he can be considered the holy patron of high persons in delicate situations (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Walsh).

In art, Saint Sylvester is shown in various scenes with Emperor Constantine. He might also be shown (1) trampling a dragon, (2) with an angel holding a cross and olive branch (the peace of the Church), (3) with Saint Romana (Roeder). Farmer reports that he is generally represented by a chained dragon or bull and a tiara, and the principal scene represented is that of the baptism of Constantine (Farmer). Sylvester is still especially venerated in Pisa (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 August 2020. Web. 26 November 2020. <>