Saint Sylvester I, Pope

December 31

Today is the feast day of Saint Sylvester.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Sylvester’s date of birth unknown.  He  died on 31 December, 335. According to the “Liber pontificalis” (ed. Duchesne, I, 170) he was the son of a Roman named Rufinus; the legendary “Vita beati Sylvestri” calls his mother Justa. After the death of Miltiades (Melchiades), Sylvester was made Bishop of Rome and occupied this position twenty-one years. This was the era of Constantine the Great, when the public position of the Church so greatly improved, a change which must certainly have been very noticeable at Rome; it is consequently to be regretted that there is so little authoritative information concerning Sylvester’s pontificate.

During Sylvester’s pontificate were built the great churches founded at Rome by Constantine, e.g. the basilica and baptistery of the Lateran near the former imperial palace where the pope lived, the basilica of the Sessorian palace (Santa Croce), the Church of St. Peter in the Vatican, and several cemeterial churches over the graves of martyrs. No doubt the pope helped towards the construction of these churches. Sylvester’s memory is especially connected with the titular Church of Equitius, which takes its name from a Roman presbyter who is said to have erected this church on his property. It was situated near the thermæ of Diocletian, and still exists. Parts of the present building may date from the fourth century.

No doubt the pope contributed to the development of the liturgy of the Church at Rome. During his reign, moreover, the first martyrology of Roman martyrs was probably drawn up. Sylvester is connected also with the establishment of the Roman school of singing. on the Via Salaria he built a cemeterial church over the Catacomb of Priscilla, the ruins of which have lately been brought to light.  In this church he was buried.  (3)

From The Liturgical Year by Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.

Although the place of honor in the service of the King belongs to the Martyrs, the Confessors also fought manfully for the glory of His name and the spreading of His Kingdom. They are crowned with the crown of justice, and Jesus, who gave it to them, has made it 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 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 300 years, during which millions of Christians had gained victory by martyrdom under the leadership of 30 Popes – predecessors of Sylvester – and they, too, all Martyrs.

So it is that Sylvester is a messenger of the peace which Christ came to give to the world, 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 in which she is now entering; the era of peace. His predecessors in the See of Peter imagined Jesus in His sufferings; Sylvester represented Jesus in His triumph. Sylvester’s feast during this Octave reminds us that the Divine Child who lies wrapped 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. (1)

Constantine’s interference in Church affairs
In a ceremony on 11th May 330 Constantine set up Constantinople at the ancient port of Byzantium and gave up his interest in the other part of the empire and in this way seemed to have confirmed the medieval myth of his “donation” of the West to the bishop of Rome. He had Arius taken back into the church and when Athanasius objected, Constantine convened a council composed only of Arian bishops at Tyre in 335, had Athanasius deposed as Patriarch of Alexandria and sent into exile.

His death and liturgical feast
Sylvester was unable to intervene and died on 31st December 335. He was buried in the Catacomb of Priscilla. This is the last day of the calendar year. In German-speaking countries and in others close to them, New Year’s Eve is known as Silvesterabend. In other countries too, the day is usually referred to as Saint Sylvester’s Day or the Feast of Saint Sylvester (in French as la Saint-Sylvestre). (8)


Frankly, the popular focus is on the end of the secular year, but on this, the seventh day of Christmas, a plenary indulgence may be gained, under the usual conditions, by reciting the Te Deum in thanksgiving for the past year.

Every place has its own customs on this day, most being rooted in the desire to bring blessings for the following year, to do things so as to “start things out on the right foot,” and often with the belief that how you find yourself at midnight portends how things will be for you the rest of the new year. Merriment is the rule in all cases, and “lucky foods” are eaten, all of which vary from place to place. In Spain, one must eat 12 grapes at midnight to fend off evil in the following year. Pea Soup is a German “lucky food,” and in France it is oysters. In the United States, black-eyed peas are consumed, along with collard greens and hog jowls (typically on January 1). Other customs of New Year’s Eve in the United States include kissing at the stroke of midnight; banging on pots and pans, honking car horns, and generally making noise at that time; making “resolutions” (commitments to break a bad habit, add a good habit, or fulfill a goal of some sort in the coming year); drinking champagne or sparkling wine; watching the “ball fall” in Times Square on television, and singing Auld Lang Syne, the traditional (secular) New Year’s Song in the English speaking world. This hauntingly sad but convivial song, written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (A.D. 1759-1796), is a song that toasts the past and old friends who’ve gone. (2)

Image: San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome, artist unknow, circa 1247. (9)

 Research by REGINA Staff


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