While we all know December 31 as New Year’s Eve, devout Catholics and Italians know the day as the Feast of Saint Silvester. As a worldwide party takes place to bid a less than fond farewell to 2020, Italians take this time to celebrate San Silvestro, even if it is somewhat subdued this year.
Saint Sylvester I, also spelled Silvester, was born in Rome during the 3rd century. He was Pope from 314 to 335 which saw the beginnings of the Christian Roman Empire (as opposed to the Holy Roman Empire, which began on December 25th in the year 800 AD). During his Pontificate, the great churches founded at Rome by Constantine – the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and the first St. Peter’s Basilica were built and several cemeterial churches were built over the graves of martyrs. Although Silvester did not attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, where the Nicene Creed was formulated, he was represented by two legates, Vitus and Vincentius and he approved the Council’s decision.
He was ordained by Pope St. Marcellinus during the peace that preceded the persecutions of Diocletian. He passed through those days of terror, witnessed the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian and saw the triumph of Constantine in the year 312. Two years later he succeeded St. Melchiades as Bishop of Rome.
According to legend, Sylvester converted and baptized Constantine who was the first Roman Emperor to become a Christian. He miraculously cured him of leprosy, for which the Emperor allegedly gave him the Donatio Constantini (Donation of Constantine), a grant of spiritual supremacy over the Eastern Patriarchates and over all matters of faith and worship. He was also named the temporal dominion over Rome and the entire western world. The Donation was ultimately determined to have been an 8th century forgery, but it was important in the development of the medieval theory of church and state. Reading between the lines of history we are assured that only a very strong and wise man could have preserved the essential independence of the Church in the face of the overpowering figure of Emperor Constantine. In general, the Bishops remained loyal to the Holy See and at times expressed apologies to Sylvester for undertaking important ecclesiastical projects at the urging of Constantine.
Sylvester is believed to have built the church where he is buried at the Cemetery of St. Priscilla on the Via Salaria. His relics were transferred in 762 by Pope St. Paul I to the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, now the national church of English Catholics in Rome. Image Credit: Italian Art Society