Sylvester I, Pope, St.
SYLVESTER I, POPE, ST.
Pontificate: Jan. 31, 314 to Dec. 31, 335. After an interval of 21 days, Sylvester, the presbyter of the titulus Equitii on the Esquiline, succeeded Pope miltiades. According to the liber pontificalis, Sylvester was "Roman by birth, his father was Rufinus." He was consecrated, according to the Liberian catalogue, on Jan. 31,314.
The Church and the Roman State. Sylvester's pontificate corresponds roughly to the reign of the Emperor constantine i, who exercised a dominant role in the ecclesiastical as well as the political affairs of the Roman Empire. The Emperor heard the complaints of bishops, summoned councils, participated in dogmatic discussions, and treated the bishops as brothers, occasionally assuming the title "bishop of external affairs" (episkopos ton ektos ), according to Eusebius. Under Constantine, the Christian Church was not merely tolerated, but in keeping with the tradition of the Roman state, religion was used as an instrument of state policy. The Christian clergy were exempted from public services (munera civilia ), as were the pagan priesthoods (313); the churches were authorized to accept legacies (321); and the decisions
of episcopal courts were given binding force equal to the civil courts in certain areas (333). Sunday was declared an official holiday (321). The policy of close union with the Church forged by Constantine, later called cae saro-papism, was intensified after his defeat of Licinius at Adrianople and accession as sole ruler (324). He transferred the seat of power to constantinople (330), and there came under the influence of Eastern churchmen, such as the Arian-sympathizer eusebius of nicomedia, who replaced the Western orthodox Hosius of Córdoba, a close confidant of Constantine's early years.
The bishop of Rome seems to have had little value in Constantine's eyes. When the African Donatists refused to abide by the decision of the Roman synod (313) and appealed to the Emperor, Constantine summoned 130 bishops to arles to a council that was attended by two priests and two deacons as representatives of the Bishop of Rome (August 314); again the decision went against the Donatists. Another fruitless appeal was heard in person by Constantine at Milan (316). The letter in which the bishops at Arles communicated their decisions to Pope Sylvester, while full of deference for his person and veneration for his see, seems to betray a sense of embarrassment about the anomalous position into which they had been forced by the strong will of the Emperor. The text is partly corrupt. It is not clear whether the words "you who hold the greater dioceses" (qui maiores dioeceses tenes ), in the passage requesting the Pope's cooperation, refer to his metropolitan position in Italy, his patriarchal authority over the West (Pierre batiffol, Erich Caspar based on canon 6 of Nicaea I), or possibly the authority of Constantine (C. turner).
Constantine and the Pope. Some 250 bishops were summoned to Nicaea by the Emperor for the first ecumenical council (May 325); they accepted the homoou sios approved by Rome, condemned arius, and agreed upon the date of Easter according to Roman and Alexandrian usage. Hosius guided the discussions, but the Emperor himself presided over impressive opening and closing ceremonies and was in effect the president of the assembly. The acts were signed by the Roman priests Vito and Vincentius, after Hosius, and before the other bishops.
Ten years later this triumph of Roman and Alexandrian orthodoxy seemed to have been all but erased. At councils in Tyre and jerusalem (354) summoned by Constantine, (St.) athanasius was deposed from the Alexandrian see by Arian-sympathizers, and banished to trier; and the rehabilitation of Arius himself seemed imminent. At Ancyra two years later the Emperor was baptized on his deathbed by Eusebius of Nicomedia; he was laid to rest as an "Equal of the Apostles" (Isapostolos ) in a mausoleum he had constructed next to the church of the Apostles in Constantinople.
Sylvester was dead by then and had been buried, according to the Depositio Episcoporum, on Dec. 31, 335, in the Cemetery of Priscilla on the Via Salaria. A basilica built either by himself or one of his successors stood there. The ruins were excavated and partially restored in 1907. His remains (or possibly only his head) appear to have been moved by Pope paul i (762) to the church of S. Silvestro in Capite within the city walls. His sarcophagus, or what was regarded as such, stood within the medieval basilica of St. Peter's, but all traces of it were subsequently lost.
The life of Pope Sylvester in the Liber pontificalis gives a catalogue of Constantine's magnificent foundations in Rome and its vicinity, including the cemeterial basilicas of Old St. Peter's on the Via Ostiensis, S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura and S. Agnese, and one that has disappeared, that of SS. Peter and Marcellinus on the Via Labicana. Within the city the lateran basilica with its baptistery was built close to the palace of the Laterani, which had been recently sequestered as imperial property, and was then given to the bishop of Rome as an official residence, later known as the Patriarchium.
Later generations found it difficult to believe that under Constantine the bishop of Rome had played an insignificant role in these happenings; and they surrounded his memory with legends. The earliest was the "Acts of Blessed Sylvester," purportedly a work of eusebius of caesarea, but actually a Roman compilation of about 460 (Caspar). Written in a popular style, it is a romantic account of Sylvester's life, which starts with his youth when he looked after the pilgrims who came to Rome. It continues with his ordination by Pope Miltiades, the persecution of the Church by Constantine (sic ), Sylvester's withdrawal to Mt. Soracte (Syraptim ), a vision of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Emperor's Baptism in the baptistery of the Lateran Palace (not yet built), and Constantine's cure from leprosy. It also contains St. hele na's regrets that her son had been converted to Christianity and not to Judaism, a debate between Sylvester and a rabbi, and Helena's finding of the holy cross in Jerusalem. A pseudo-Constantinian decree that "all bishops of the whole world shall be subject to the pope as the magistrates are to the emperor" clearly reflects a date later than the 4th century. Two other forgeries, the "Constitution of Sylvester" and the "Council of 275 bishops," a collection of 20 decrees allegedly promulgated by the Pope in a council at Rome in 326 that confirmed the Council of nicaea i, form part of the Symmachan Forgeries, compiled c. 500 during the Laurentian schism. The most famous of these documents, the donation of constantine, was not compiled until the eighth century. Once regarded as authentic, these legends had an enormous influence on medieval thought.
Feast: December 31.
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