If legend were history, the life of St. Sylvester would indeed be
interesting. It would be pleasant to recount how St. Sylvester baptized the
great Constantine and how Constantine was cured of leprosy by the baptismal
waters. But this is a legend which, along with others, grew up around the
papal contemporary of the colorful emperor.
Sylvester was a Roman, the son of Rufinus. He was ordained a priest by
Marcellinus. Chosen Pope in 314, he continued the work of organizing the
peacetime Church so well begun by St. Miltiades. Sylvester saw the building
of famous churches, notably the Basilica of St. Peter and the Basilica of
St. John Lateran, built near the former imperial palace of that name. It is
quite probable too that the first martyrology or list of Roman martyrs was
drawn up in his reign.
Towering over all other events of his pontificate, however, was the first
ecumenical or general council of the Church. An ecumenical council
represents the entire teaching Church as opposed to a diocesan synod or a
metropolitan or a national council. The ecumenical council, like the pope,
is infallible in matters of faith and morals because it is the voice of the
A heresy had arisen in Alexandria and at that time was making great headway
throughout the East, the heresy of Arius, a priest of Alexandria. Arius
taught that Jesus Christ was not truly divine, that His nature was not the
same as that of the Father but only similar. It was to study this question
and to pronounce the true teaching of the Church that bishops from all
parts of the empire made their way to Nicaea in 325. The Emperor
Constantine, still a catechumen, had at first made light of the matter, but
when his eyes were opened to the danger of Arian doctrine by Hosius of
Cordova, he became so interested that he went to Nicaea himself.
Pope Sylvester sent two legates to represent him Vitus and Vincentius, and
it seems that it was the Pope who suggested the term consubstantial to
describe the relation of Christ's nature to the Father. The Council
condemned Arius and drew up the famous Nicene Creed. This creed, said in
all the Catholic Churches throughout the world, proclaims that Jesus is
true God of true God consubstantial with the Father.
St. Sylvester died in 335. He was buried in a church which he himself had
built over the Catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria. His feast is kept
on December 31.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.