Silvester or Sylvester is the day of the Feast of Pope Sylvester I, a saint who served as Pope of the Catholic Church from 314 to 335 and oversaw both the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity.
The feast day is held on the anniversary of Sylvester’s death, 31 December, a date that, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, has coincided with New Year’s Eve. Because of this coincidence, several countries, primarily in Europe, use a variant of Silvester’s name as the preferred name for the holiday; these countries include Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland, Slovenia and even in Israel.
Pope Sylvester’s long pontificate saw the beginnings of the Christian Roman Empire. A presbyter when elected to succeed Pope St. Miltiades (Melchiades), Sylvester was consecrated on Jan. 31, 314. The most important event of his reign was the Council of Nicaea (May 325), which condemned the Alexandrian Christian priest Arius, founder of Arianism, a heretical doctrine teaching that the Son was neither equal with God the Father nor eternal. At the same Council legislation was passed restricting Jews and Jewish Christians, and anathematizing them for retaining Jewish identity and practices. See here.
While the Roman emperor Constantine the Great favoured Christianity and was a major controller of its ecclesiastical affairs, neither he nor his immediate successors gave any official recognition to papal primacy over the church. Thus, it was a rare and significant exception when Sylvester was accorded a preeminent role in the Arian crisis. Although invited, he did not attend the Council of Nicaea personally but was represented by two legates, who were treated with great honour and respect yet did not preside at the debates.
According to subsequent legend, Sylvester converted and baptized Constantine, who was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian, and miraculously cured him of leprosy, for which the emperor allegedly gave him the Donatio Constantini (Donation of Constantine), a grant of spiritual supremacy over the Eastern patriarchates and over all matters of faith and worship as well as temporal dominion over Rome and the entire Western world. The Donation is now universally admitted to be an 8th-century forgery, but it was important in the development of the medieval theory of church and state.
Sylvester is believed to have built at the Cemetery of St. Priscilla on the Via Salaria a church, where he was buried. His relics were transferred in 762 by Pope St. Paul I to the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, now the national church of English Catholics in Rome.
Prayer: As we celebrate the end of one year and anticipate the arrival of the New, what a hotch-potch we see in the history of the Church! A blend of truth and error, the message of Yeshua’s love alongside imperial ambitions and d anti-Jewish attitudes and actions, how can we avoid the mistakes of the past and focus the New Year on bringing the true message of hope, love, peace and joy that we find in the Messiah? Lord, renew your church! Preserve us from the errors of the past, the struggles and conflicts that were meaningless and counterproductive. Help us rather to live out the life of faith today with passion and integrity, holding firmly to the truth you have revealed in your Incarnate Word, our Messiah Yeshua. In his name we pray, Amen. Happy New Year!