January: St. Sylvester — From catacombs to cathedrals

Saints with Funny Names

Sylvester I and Constantine. Photo: Public Domain.
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January has a decided lack of saints with funny names. Imagine my disappointment when the 2018 Eastern Rite calendar came in. What did I see? Paul, Gregory, Anthony, and a dozen more perfectly normal red-blooded American names. You and I grew up with at least a dozen of each, right? Then I spotted Sylvester. Uh, we grew up with him, too.

When you hear the name Sylvester, do you picture a cartoon tuxedo cat? If so, you are not alone. A google search of Sylvester yields a screen full of Tweety Bird’s would-be predator with a sprinkling of images of Sylvester Stallone thrown in. All this to say that the name Sylvester, even if you have heard of it, is not exactly in the top 2,000 boy baby names.

It really should be. The name Sylvester means “wild and wooded” rather like its trendy counterpart, Forest. The saint who bore it was as manly as old Sly Stallone himself. As the 33rd pope, during a time of great change in the Church, he had to be.

Sylvester came from devout Roman Christian parents. Not much is known about him but we do know that he began his papacy in the year 314, a scant year after the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed liberty for the Church. It wasn’t the first time an emperor had decided to tolerate Christianity but it was more generous than before and this time it stuck.

Thus began a long awaited, much welcome period of peace marked by some stunning achievements: the Council of Nicaea, the snuffing out of the Arian heresy (which taught that Jesus was not divine), the building of the first St. Peter’s Basilica, and the dedication of the major basilica, St. John Lateran. Not a bad pontificate, at all.

The only thing is that Constantine did most of it.

He built or expanded the aforementioned buildings, which, as the rich emperor, only makes sense. I am sure the faithful appreciated not having to hear sermons about the building fund. But Constantine had his mighty hands in the spiritual building of the Church as well. He instigated the Council of Nicaea in response to the Arian heresy.

Pope St. Sylvester didn’t even get to go to the Council of Nicaea. He did send legates and in this way, presided over it. Also, Sylvester is most likely the one who came up with the Greek formulation of “consubstantial” or “of one essence” to describe the divine nature of the Son in relation to the Father. And that is no small thing.

This clear teaching helped end the Arian heresy which had been scary popular before. Christians across the denominations (except Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few other quasi Christian sects) have held to the Nicene Creed ever since.

St. Sylvester appears on both the Eastern and Western calendars, just like Paul, Gregory, and Anthony. The West places his feast day on Dec. 31, while the East has him down for Jan. 2. This slight adjustment of date is due to a Western calendar upgrade in the year 1582. While much of the Catholic East eventually accepted the “new calendar,” a few feast days still linger on the old dates. Anyway…

The important thing to take away from this calendar business is that Sylvester reigned over East and West at a time when both were united. Thus, even now, when much of the East is not Catholic but Orthodox, Sylvester remains a venerated fixture on Jan. 2, on both the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox calendars.

I wish I could say more about St. Sylvester but much of what goes around about him is apocryphal, such as that he cured Constantine of leprosy. This tale and others come from a document called the Donation of Constantine that is now known to be a medieval forgery.

What we do know is during his pontificate, a school of liturgical singing was established, churches were built over the remains of the early Roman martyrs, and the first Roman martyrology was written. He was likely the man behind all of the above.

Greater than these details is the fact that Sylvester governed the Church for 21 years during a period of unprecedented change. For the first time, instead of the Church surviving a persecuting emperor, she had to survive a devoted one.

Things could have gone very differently back in the days when the emperor was a superstar and the pope was in his shadow. Sylvester lived up to his manly name because it was he whom God chose to guide the Church safely out of the catacombs and into the cathedrals.

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