Sylvester was born in Rome, the son of Christian parents, Rufinus and Justa, who entrusted their son’s education in the faith to the priest Charitius (or Timothy, according to some sources). The student was witness to his teacher’s martyrdom. Sylvester was ordained to the priesthood by Pope Marcellinus and steadfastly performed his sacramental and pastoral duties during the persecutions of Diocletian. What joy he must have shared with all the Christians of the Empire when Constantine’s victory became also a victory for Christ! The Edict of Milan, issued by Emperor Constantine in 313, allowed Christians the freedom to worship openly, and very soon, Christianity became the favored religion of the Empire.
When Pope Melchiades died in 314, Sylvester – faithful through persecution, uncertainty, and now triumph – was chosen as his successor. The response of the Church to its new position in society was to affect its future forever. St. Sylvester helped to determine that response in his position as the Bishop of Rome.
He argued against the Donatists on the question of how to treat those who had apostatized during the persecutions, urging readmission to the Sacraments of the Church after penance. He amended the customs of Christians. For example, he dispensed the fast on Saturdays, which was practiced by many Christians up to that time, and ordered that fasting be observed only on Holy and Great Saturday as well as on those Saturdays that fall within the fasting seasons.
He was quick to promote the construction of church buildings, now that public worship was legal and liturgies and ceremonies could be practiced publicly. He turned the Emperor’s gift of the Lateran Palace into the cathedral church of the city of Rome (St. John Lateran). He encouraged the Emperor’s mother, Helena, in her building of churches in the Holy Land and especially in her discovery of the True Cross.
Pope Sylvester also tried to support the cooperation between the Emperor and the Church. He is thought to have been instrumental in Constantine’s conversion and baptism. Although he was unable (because of his advanced age) to attend the Council of Nicaea called by the Emperor, he sent representatives who helped to confirm the Church’s teachings on the person of Christ.
God was gracious in giving Sylvester the privilege of seeing the Church move from persecution to triumph. And St. Sylvester, in thanksgiving, helped to lead the Church faithfully in all that time. He fell asleep in the Lord on December 31, 335.
Feast Day: January 2