Saint Sylvester, history and legend

Sylvester was the 33rd pope of the Roman Church. It would seem that he died on 31 December, 335, and united a lengthy ministry in one of the most disjointed periods in Christianity with a position of absolute subordination to the true figure of the time, Emperor Constantine. During those years, the empire became Christian, but the driving force behind the change came from the emperor and not the pope, who, in historical chronicles, appears as a politically marginal figure, overwhelmed by Constantine’s personality, even in the most incisive episodes of his pontificate.


Sylvester was behind the earliest ecumenical council in history, the famous First Council of Nicaea. It was a time of ferment and upset, in which heretical currents of varying degrees, often schismatic, attacked one another on matters such as the transubstantiation or consubstantiation of Christ, which now only excite the most erudite theologians, but back then separated the Churches into increasingly fragmented groups.


And yet, on that occasion too, it was Constantine who presided over and dictated the agenda, as we’d put it today, while Sylvester was detained in Rome for “matters related to the age”.


There’s no especial reason that links Saint Sylvester with the year’s end, other than the anniversary of his death. Indeed, even on the occasions when he could celebrate his glory through building basilicas and churches, he was suborned by the emperor, who made them “his” accomplishments. Nonetheless, Sylvester is attributed with choosing the Vatican hill for the first location of St. Peter’s Basilica, even if it was the emperor who was behind the construction and who took credit for it.


Sylvester gained his feast day of 31 December in Christian martyrology for his leniency and wisdom rather than for his greatness, although he is surrounded by numerous myths. There’s no truth in the baptism of Constantine or his conversion, which gave him the title of the “true founder of the Church”. Any tales about defeating dragons or the like are equally – and obviously – pure fantasy.