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Sylvester I

Sylvester I

Very little is known about the early life of Pope Sylvester I (died 335), and for centuries his pontificate was shrouded in legend. The fact that the pontificate coincided with the reign of Roman emperor Constantine I has contributed heavily to such legends. While Sylvester's rule over the Catholic Church has been described as lackluster in some quarters, he nevertheless presided during a period of church-building in Rome. More important from a theological point of view, he was pope during the First Council at Nicea in 325, out of which was established the divinity of Jesus Christ. However it was not the pope, but rather the emperor who was most responsible for these accomplishments.

Separating Fact from Legend

The records declare that Sylvester was born in Rome, the son of Rufinus and Justa, though his parents' identities are also shrouded in legend. At any rate the year of his birth has been lost. Sylvester was ordained by Marcellinus and served as a priest in Rome. He later became attached to the papal court of Pope Miltiades. When Miltiades died in January 314, Sylvester's candidacy as bishop of Rome was put forth, and he succeeded Militiades as pope on January 31, 314. The primary legend surrounding Sylvester's pontificate is that he cured Emperor Constantine of leprosy, and in gratitude the emperor converted to Christianity, bequeathed property to the Church and eventually set up the imperial papacy. The reality was far different.

The Roman emperor Constantine (r. 306-337) in 313 had signed what is known as the Edict of Milan with the eastern, Byzantine co-emperor, Licinius (r. 308-324). This edict formally ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. There is evidence that Licinius revoked the edict in his territory around the year 320. He promulgated various laws that restricted communication among bishops and limited the ability of Christians to worship. Sylvester was powerless to stop this, but Constantine was not. Although the issue of the treatment of Christians was not the pretext for civil war, Constantine eventually invaded Byzantium and overthrew Licinius.

The First Controversy

At the time of Sylvester's accession to the chair of St. Peter, Christianity was on the verge of enjoying an era of growth and prosperity. However Sylvester inherited an important controversy having to do with the Donatists's request to have the bishop of Carthage removed. Named for their leader, bishop Donatus, the Donatists were extremist separatists who took a hardline view against those Christians who had lapsed from the faith in order to save their lives during the ruthless persecution begun in 303 under the late Emperor Diocletian. A dynamic leader, Constantine overshadowed the pope, and because the office of pope had not yet evolved into the central power of the Church, it was natural that the Donatists would turn to the emperor instead of to Pope Sylvester to resolve their grievances. Constantine convened a council of bishops known as the Synod of Rome that met in 313, during the final months of Miltiades' reign as pope. When the synod ruled against the Donatists, that group again petitioned Constantine, who convened a larger council near present-day Arles.

The second council convened August 1, 314, just six months into Sylvester's papacy. This council, too, decided against the Donatists. It is not known what Sylvester's views were regarding this controversy, though most likely he sided with the majority of his fellow bishops in opposing the radicals. Sylvester, in fact, did not attend the council, but sent two priests and two deacons to represent him. The council sent its decision to the pope, however. Furthermore it was Constantine, not Sylvester or any of the other bishops, who moved to suppress the Donatists. In this the emperor was unsuccessful; the Donatists would flourish in northern Africa through the sixth century.

The Second Controversy

The next major religious controversy that emerged during Sylvester's papacy was far worse in that it involved heresy. The Arian heresy, as it is now known, became widespread about 318. Named for its principal exponent, a priest named Arius, Arianism taught that Jesus was neither eternal nor divine and therefore not the son of God. It conceded that Jesus was the first of God's creatures, and this position made him an intercessor between God and humanity. Arius was denounced by the bishop of Alexandria and, following his excommunication from the Church, he left Alexandria and took refuge at Nicomedia, whose bishop was the influential Eusebius. All during this time Sylvester kept out of the growing debate around Arianism.

The controversy grew so intense that, at Constantine's instigation, another council was convened in May 325, this time at Nicea in Bithynia. More than 300 bishops attended, but only a handful were from the West. Sylvester sent two representatives, the priests Vitus and Vincent. The council's president was most probably Bishop Ossius of Cordova. The Council of Nicea voted overwhelmingly to condemn Arianism–only 17 of the bishops even defended it–yet it managed to create another, this time linguistic, controversy. The most important term of the profession of faith adopted by the council–the first part of which makes up the contemporary Nicene Creed–contains the Greek term homoousious, which many of the bishops had not been prepared to accept. Basically meaning "same essence," referring to Jesus as homoousious in effect meant that Jesus was of the same nature as God, and that he in fact was God. While this was a direct rebuke of Arianism it was not the first time this doctrine had been put forth. The second-and third-century ecclesiastical writer Tertullian, for example, had declared essentially the same thing using the Latin term unuis substantiae.

Despite the misgiving of some of the bishops the term homoousious passed into the article of faith, and the doctrine, along with heteras ousious, or "heteroousious" (i.e., different substances or persons), became the basis of the Blessed Trinity. Both of Sylvester's representatives signed the decree, but their names are placed under that of Bishop Ossius, signifying that they bore no great authority as papal legates. While their signatures were seen as Sylvester's confirmation of the decision, the pope nonetheless took no action in later years when Constantine began to favor the Arians.

The fact that Emperor Constantine was a cosigner of the Edict of Milan and that he summoned various Church councils demonstrates his interest in ecclesiastical and theological matters concerning the Church. Most historians believe that his interest dated back to 305, but the story of his ordering his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields and of his subsequent battle victory may be apocryphal. What is also legend is that Sylvester converted the emperor, although it is true that Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.

Constantine erected a number of churches in Rome during Sylvester's papacy. These include the original St. Peter's Basilica, which was on via Ostiensis, as well as the Basilica Constantiniana and its baptistery near the pope's residence. These became known as San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), which has remained the pope's cathedral. The basilica of the Sessorian palace was also built, as well as a number of smaller churches to honor the graves of martyrs. Sylvester is particularly connected with the cemetery church built over the Catacomb of Priscilla. Liturgical development also took place during Sylvester's pontificate, and it is thought that the first martyrology–of Roman martyrs–was drawn up at that time. Sylvester was also involved in the establishment of the Roman school of singing.

Another Legend

The second important legend connected with Sylvester's pontificate concerns the "Donatio Constantini," the Donation of Constantine. This is a forged document, possibly from the ninth century though it may have been written anytime between 750 and 850. The "Donatio" is actually the second part of a larger document titled Constitutum domni Constantini imperatoris. The first part of the Constitutum, the "Confessio," is a purported memoir by Constantine in which he reveals how Sylvester not only instructed him in Christianity but converted him and cured the emperor of leprosy. The legend of the cure probably dates from the mid-fifth century. The "Donatio" is by far the most important section, helping to extend the pope's influence over medieval Christianity. It was later included in yet another forgery called the False Decretals, which Pope Nicholas I (858-867) employed–without realizing they were forged–to bolster papal authority over recalcitrant bishops.

The Donation of Constantine gave personally to Sylvester–and by extension to succeeding popes–primacy over all the other bishops in the West and over the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. The Basilica of St. John Lateran was made the primary church in Christendom; the Lateran palace was given to the pope. The emperor also ceded to the pope the city of Rome, the entire Italian peninsula, and all of the provinces and states of the Western empire, since the emperor had established the new capitol in Constantinople. It attributes the construction of the new capitol city to a desire on Constantine's part to separate the secular empire from the religious one.

By the 15th century the Donation of Constantine was proved to be a forgery. Three important ecclesiastics, Nicholas of Cusa, Lorenzo Valla, and Reginald Pecocke, had each examined the matter and concluded the Donation was false. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II, also questioned the authenticity of the document. However it was not until Baronius proclaimed the forgery of the Donation of Constantine in the Annales ecclesiastici that this was universally accepted.

Further legends surrounding Sylvester arose in the fifth and sixth centuries. One of these was intended to rehabilitate Sylvester's reputation vis-à-vis the Council of Nicea. In this version the council was convened by both the emperor and the pope; furthermore, it was Sylvester who designated Bishop Ossius to preside over the council. Another Sylvester legend dating from this period has to do with his association with the Armenian, St. Gregory the Illuminator, whose own legends sometimes parallel those of Sylvester. Like the pope, Gregory was supposed to have converted a monarch–in this case the Armenian king Trdat–although Christianity existed in Armenia long before Gregory's time. A number of letters thought to have passed between Sylvester and Gregory were published in the late 19th century, but these have all been declared forgeries. Nothing is known what influence, if any, Sylvester had in Armenia.

Sylvester's feast day is December 31 and it has been assumed that the date of his death was December 31, 335. Most likely he died a few day earlier and the date given was the date of his burial in the cemetery of Priscilla. The date of his canonization is unknown, though what is remarkable about it is that Sylvester was one of the earliest saints who was not a martyr.


John, Eric, editor, The Popes: A Concise Biographical History, Hawthorn Books, 1964.

McBrien, Richard P., Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II, HarperCollins, 1997.


Catholic Encyclopedia, (December 17, 2003).

"Edict of Milan," (December 15, 2003).

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Sylvester I, Saint

Saint Sylvester I, pope (314–35), a Roman; successor of St. Miltiades (St. Melchiades). He was pope under the reign of Emperor Constantine I, who built for him the Lateran and other churches. St. Sylvester sent legates to the First Council of Nicaea and took strong interest in the controversy over Arianism. The spurious Donation of Constantine (see Constantine, Donation of) was supposedly given to St. Sylvester. The name is also spelled Silvester. He was succeeded by St. Marcus. Feast: Dec. 31.

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