Pope St. Sylvester, the Saint of New Year’s Eve

Happy New Year’s Eve — and Happy Feast of Pope St. Sylvester!

San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome, 1247
San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome, 1247 (photo: Register Files)

Last year I wrote of the little-known “saint commemorated on Christmas,” St. Anastasia, who is still recalled in the extraordinary form of the Mass and Divine Office on Christmas Day.

This year, I’d like to look at the somewhat overlooked “Saint of New Year’s Eve”—Pope Saint Sylvester I.

It’s easy to miss him: after Christmas Day, the Church sends forth a flurry of saint-days and commemorations that rank in the highest and best-known of the blessed: first, St. Stephen, the protomartyr and protodeacon whose own death imitates Our Lord’s down to his dying words and forgiveness of his executioners. Then St. John the Evangelist, “The disciple whom Jesus loved,” author of one Gospel, three Epistles and the Apocalypse, and the Apostle who took Mary into his own home at Our Lord’s dying request. Then the feast of the Holy Innocents, those Jewish infants who bore witness to Christ not with their words, but their little lives. Next: perhaps the most famous of all medieval martyrs: St. Thomas à Becket, whom every writer from Geoffrey Chaucer (whose Canterbury Tales pilgrims are en route to St. Thomas’s shrine) to Alfred Lord Tennyson to T.S. Eliot to Jean Anouilh has immortalized in print (along with the Richard Burton / Peter O’Toole blockbuster movie as well.)

But the year ends with the relatively—given the aforementioned saints — obscure St. Sylvester. And the fact that the very next day is the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos), a Holy Day of obligation, further blurs this commemoration, since only morning Mass would recall him — afternoon Masses being Vigils for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

So who was Pope Saint Sylvester I? And why do we end the (calendar) year with him?

Pope Sylvester was born possibly in Rome, though we do not know when, and he was elected pope in 314, succeeding Pope Miltiades, less than a year after the Edict of Milan had granted freedom to Christianity in the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine.

He is important for a couple of Ecumenical Councils, neither of which he called, nor for that matter, even attended. He did, however, grant his official approbation to both:

  • The First Council of Arles, 314: St. Augustine himself calls this a “ecumenical council,” though it might have only been conceived of as a “synod.” Regardless, it was called by the Emperor Constantine the Great himself and the main thrust was to put down the Donatist heresy (which says that only a sinless clergyman can licitly confer the sacraments). Also: the date of Easter for the Universal Church was (more or less) set, or at the very least agreed upon. St. Sylvester sent two priests as his legates and was lauded for “remaining in the place where the Apostles daily sit in judgment” i.e., Rome.
  • The First Council of Nicaea, 325: again, convened by Emperor Constantine, this council hammered out what the Universal Church believed in what has come down to us as the “Nicene Creed,” which we still recite every Sunday Mass. This Council also formulated the first iteration of canon law, quashed the Arian heresy, and reiterated the import of the Universal Church celebrating Easter on the same day. It is said that St. Sylvester did not attend, “pleading his old age,” and it is certain that he died later that same year.

Back in Rome, which Pope St. Sylvester never left, he founded the papal cathedral, the Lateran Basilica (originally dedicated to Our Savior, and later rededicated to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist). He also started the building of the original St. Peter’s church on The Vatican Hill (which later became the first St. Peter’s Basilica), St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls, and the Church of the Holy Cross.

It is often said that nature hates a vacuum, and that’s true for history, too. That Constantine the Great and St. Sylvester could have coexisted but not had much contact was perhaps too much for the medieval mind to bear. Thus, St. Sylvester is perhaps best remembered for something that may never have happened: legend has it that he baptized the Emperor Constantine himself and in so doing cured the emperor of leprosy. In gratitude for this miracle, Constantine gave to the pope some provinces of Italy, which famously became known as “The Donation of Constantine” and the raison d’etre of the Papal States.

“The Donation” was created out of whole cloth and it is possible that the Pope and Emperor never even met, and that Constantine’s deathbed baptism was performed by Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Regardless, St. Sylvester was one of the longest reigning of the “early popes” (he ranks as the 33rd successor of Saint Peter), his pontificate lasting over two decades, and he had a knack for organizing public worship in Rome itself, thus reinforcing Rome’s position as the spiritual head of the Church, while Constantine was busy moving his new headquarters to the former Byzantium.

Pope St. Sylvester is also one of the earliest non-martyrs to be canonized, though he is often overshadowed by St. Martin of Tours (316-397) who also lays claim to that honor.

Pope St. Sylvester was originally buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Priscilla on the Salerian Way, but Pope St. Paul I had his relics transferred to the Church of St. Sylvester in capite (“the first”) which is now the national church of English Catholics in Rome.

As for why we celebrate St. Sylvester’s feast day on the last day of the Gregorian Calendar year, the answer is simple (and a bit prosaic): he died on Dec. 31, 325—one of the only dates of his life and pontificate we know with absolute certainty.

Happy New Year’s Eve — and Happy Feast of Pope St. Sylvester!