St. Patrick Catholic Church
Saint of the Day
 

Pope Sylvester I
(Optional Memorial)
December 31



Barbatian of Ravenna (RM)
5th century. Barbatian, a priest of Antioch, went to Rome on a mission and attracted the attention of Empress Placidia Augusta. She induced him to fix his residence at Ravenna, near the imperial palace, where she built him a monastery. By his prudent advice he rendered outstanding service to the state (Benedictines).


Columba of Sens, VM (RM)
Born in Spain; died in Meaux, France in 273. While the date and circumstances of Columba's martyrdom are undocumented except in a spurious passio, her legend says that she fled her homeland in order to avoid being denounced as a Christian. She and other Spanish believers migrated to France and all were martyred at Meaux under Aurelian. Formerly she was venerated throughout France; the historical monuments of Sens still testify to this devotion (Attwater, Benedictines, Encyclopedia). In art, Saint Columba is portrayed as a crowned maiden in chains. At times she may (1) have a dog or bear on a chain, (2) hold a book and a peacock's feather, (3) be with an angel on a funeral pyre, or (4) be beheaded (Roeder).


Donata and Companions MM (RM)
Date unknown. Donata, Paulina, Rustica, Nominanda, Serotina, Hilaria, and companions were a band of Roman women martyred in one of the early persecutions. Their relics are enshrined in the catacombs of Via Salaria (Benedictines).


Hermes (the Exorcist) of Rome M (RM)
Died c. 270. Hermes was an exorcist who probably suffered martyrdom under Aurelian. He may be identical to the martyr commemorated on January 4 (Benedictines). In art, he is depicted on horseback casting the devil out of a woman led by a rope or exorcising a child (Roeder).


Marius ()
Died 594. Burgundian pushed into the episcopate where he succeeded at Avenches (Lausanne) (Encyclopedia).


Melania the Younger, Widow, and Pinian (RM)
Born in Rome, Italy, c. 383; died in Jerusalem, December 31, 438 (or 439). Melania was the product of several pious generations of the patrician Roman family of the Valerii. Her grandmother, Saint Antonia Melania the Elder, widow of Valerius Maximus, was one of the first Roman matrons to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When Melania the Elder moved to Egypt in 372 and then to Palestine to become a nun, she left behind her in Rome her six-year-old son Valerius Publicola, who fathered today's saint and was a Roman senator.

Antonia Melania the Younger began her life in the splendor of the Valerian palace. She inherited a fantastic fortune--estates in what are now eight modern countries. She controlled whole populations. Yet Melania chose asceticism, which, according to Saint Jerome was inherited from her mother. Her life made contact with several other saints, Saint Paulinus of Nola, Augustine of Hippo, and Jerome--all of whom had a very high opinion of her and her husband.

At age 13, Melania married her 17-year-old cousin Saint Valerius Pinianus against her will. She suggested that they live together in celibacy, in exchange for which he could have her entire fortune. He insisted that they have two sons first. They had a daughter they vowed to virginity, then a son. Both of whom died soon after birth. Melania seemed to be dying, too, and made her recovery contingent upon a life of abstinence. Pinianus agreed and she recovered.

Their religious devotion and austere lifestyle provoked opposition from other family members. But after her father's death, her widowed mother, Albina, the Christian daughter of a pagan priest, was also won over. The couple then lived in simplicity as far as was possible. They struggled to give away all their property--her annual income was the equivalent of about US$20 million today. When they tried to sell their property for the good of the poor and the Church, their family appealed to Emperor Honorius, who sided with Melania. She became one of the greatest religious philanthropists of all time: She endowed monasteries in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine; helped churches and monasteries in Europe; aided the poor, sick, captives, and pilgrims.

Not only did they provide charity out of their surplus, Melania and Pinianus gave of themselves. They freed their 8,000 slaves in two years, but the slaves refused to be freed, so they transferred themselves to Pinianus's brother. By the time Melania was 20, Pinianus, Albina, and Melania left Rome and turned their country estate into a religious center. Their palace became a home for innumerable sick, prisoners, and exiles whom the couple personally sought out.

When the Visigoths invaded Rome in 408, Pinianus and Melania moved to Messina, Sicily. In 410, Rome was taken and their palace burned. Finding Sicily in danger, they decided to cross the Mediterranean to Carthage with the aged priest Rufinus. They were shipwrecked on the island of Lipari, which Melania ransomed from pirates. Finally, they moved to their estate in Tagaste, Numidia, in northern Africa. The saintliness of the couple quickly became apparent to the denizens. The citizens of nearby Hippo demanded that Saint Augustine ordain Pinianus at once. Augustine compromised by saying that he should stay in Hippo for a time as a layman. The couple also established a monastery and a convent, where she lived in great austerity.

By 417, most of their estates were sold and the couple was truly poor. Melania, Pinianus, and Albina made a pilgrimage to Palestine, then visited the desert monks in Egypt, and finally settled in Jerusalem, where Melania's grandmother Antonia Melania had been living as a nun. Melania's cousin, Saint Paula, introduced her to the group of Roman women in Bethlehem presided over by Saint Jerome, whose friend she became.

After her mother Albina's death in 431, Melania established herself as a recluse. She founded a monastery and sent her husband to seek out those with vocations. He succeeded, then died in 432, and was buried on Mount Olivet near her mother. Melania lived in a room near his tomb for four years until she attracted numerous disciples. Then she founded and directed a convent to care for the Church of the Ascension and sing the Divine Office continually for her mother and husband. She shared in their life of prayer and good works, and occupied herself with copying books.

Her uncle Volusianus wrote to her insinuating that she should consider marriage to Emperor Valentinian III. She went to Constantinople, ingratiated herself with the imperial family, then undertook a brisk campaign against the Nestorian heresy, and fell ill. She converted her uncle and assisted him to a holy death on January 6, 437.

Melania went to Bethlehem for her last Christmas and spent it with Saint Paula. She returned to her convent for the feast of Saint Stephen and died five days later, with Saint Paula, the monks, nuns, and the bishop present. As she was dying Paula began crying and Melania consoled her.

Melania's biography was written by her chaplain, Gerontius. Although Melania has been venerated in the Eastern Church for centuries, she has had no cultus in the West. Pope Pius X, however, approved the observance of her feast in 1908 for the Somaschi, an observance followed by the Latin Catholics of Constantinople and Jerusalem (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Martindale).

In art, Melania is generally shown praying in a cave, a skull and vegetables near her (Roeder).


Offa of Benevento, OSB Abbess (AC)
Died c. 1070. A Benedictine abbess at Saint Peter's in Benevento, Italy (Benedictines).


Blessed Peter of Subiaco, OSB M (PC)
Died 1003. Peter was the 22nd abbot of the famous monastery of Subiaco. He was blinded by the baron of Monticello for defending the rights of his abbey. He died in prison (Benedictines).


Sabinian and Potentian MM (RM)
Died c. 300. Sabinian is honored as the first bishop of Sens. Potentian was, perhaps, his successor in the see. Both were martyred and are now venerated as the patron saints of the diocese of Sens. The legend that they were immediate disciples of Saint Peter is now discarded (Benedictines).


Stephen and Companions MM (RM)
Date unknown. Stephen, Pontian, Attalus, Fabian, Cornelius, Flos, Quintian, Minervinus, and Simplician were martyred in Catania, Sicily (Benedictines).


Sylvester (Silvester) I, Pope (RM)
Born in Rome, Italy; died there in 335; feast day in the East is January 2. The Liber Pontificalis says that Silvester was the son of a Roman named Rufinus. Sylvester rejoiced at his good fortune in succeeding Saint Miltiades, who died on January 10, 314. The year before, Sylvester was a simple priest in Rome, attached to the parish of Equitius and with some sort of relationship to Pope Saint Miltiades, as he had previously been in the entourage of Pope Saint Marcellinus.

On January 31, 314, Sylvester, Roman citizen, took the chair of Saint Peter, a few days after his election and after Emperor Constantine granted toleration to the Christian Church by enacting the Edict of Milan in 313. It was an easy succession. Sylvester did act as counselor and spiritual director of Constantine.

In consequence an extraordinary fable arose about his pontificate. It is said that Constantine had been told by his doctor that the best way to cure leprosy was to bathe in the blood of children. A vision in which SS Peter and Paul appeared to the emperor charging him instead to seek baptism at the hands of Sylvester changed Constantine's mind. Sylvester baptized him; the emperor was healed; and in gratitude granted the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica (of course this is not true; Constantine postponed his baptism until his deathbed). These lands became known as the Donation of Constantine and formed the basis of the future Papal States.

Nevertheless, even while Miltiades was still alive, Constantine donated large tracts of land in and around Rome for the building of basilicas. Christians had been building small, everyday places of worship in Rome since the 3rd century but Constantine envisioned one large enough to hold the entire clergy and a major portion of the population of the city, as well as basilicas built over the tombs of the most illustrious martyrs. From the Imperial Treasury, Constantine gave Miltiades the Lateran Palace as his residence.

That Sylvester was not the founder of the pontifical monarchy has been suspected since the 8th century and acknowledged since the 15th. Many Romans looked with suspicion on the impious legalization of Christianity; it marked the end of a glorious tradition. (Remember Christians had been persecuted because of their impiety, i.e., refusal to offer sacrifices to the gods who protected Rome and its empire.)

Sylvester's own virtues must have been considerable, if only because he is one of the first Christians who did not die a martyr and yet was honored as a saint (there were a few others). He sent legates to the Council of Arles to deal with the Donatist dispute. The bishops there commended Sylvester for not coming in person but instead remaining in the place "where the Apostles daily sit in judgement."

Arianism arose during Sylvester's pontificate. Arius, priest of Alexandria, Egypt, began to teach doubtful propositions concerning the mystery of the Trinity. Constantine became aware of it and sent Bishop Hosius of Cordova to investigate. It was Constantine, encouraged by Hosius and the Eastern episcopate, who took the initiative to convene the first ecumenical council in Nicaea, Bithynia, in 325, to consider the issue. The council was attended by about 220 bishops, nearly all of whom were orientals. Constantine presided and invited Sylvester to share the honor but Sylvester remained in Rome and sent legates to Nicaea--Vincent and Victor. The presiding Western bishop, Hosius of Cordova, also represented the holy father. The council condemned the heresy of Arius. There is no record that Sylvester formally confirmed the signature of his legates to the acts of the council.

Should Sylvester be berated for not upholding the primacy of the pope testified to earlier by Saint Irenaeus and Saint Cyprian of Carthage? No, the new conditions were mystifying. The Church was moving into a new period. The role of the pope in a persecuted Church was quite different from that of the emperor's Church. As long as the emperor arranged things for the better, perhaps Sylvester should remain uninvolved and implicitly delegate his authority.

Unfortunately, Constantine eventually made a mess of theology and botched up most of the good work he had done. Sylvester, with the bad habits of tolerance he had acquired, reacted too timidly--or not at all. The influence of the beneficial Hosius gave way to that of the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and Constantine threw the Church into confusion. It was Eusebius who baptized Constantine on his deathbed.

Sylvester also set himself the task of creating churches worthy of the faith in the city of Rome. He either restored or founded the churches of Saint Peter on Vatican Hill, Saint Lawrence-Outside- the-Walls, and Santa Croce. His ancient episcopal chair and his mitre--the oldest one still to survive--can today be sen in the church of San Martino ai Monti, which he built over a house near the Baths of Diocletian used for worship during the years of persecution. Saint Sylvester also built a church at the cemetery of Priscilla on the Salerian Way.

It is probable that it was to Sylvester, rather than to Miltiades, that Constantine gave the Lateran Palace. Sylvester made the basilica of Saint John Lateran his cathedral. There you can still see the famous mosaic commissioned by Pope Leo III (reigned 795- 816). In the middle stands Jesus surrounded by the 12 Apostles, and at each side two parallel scenes: Jesus gives the keys to Saint Sylvester with one hand and, with the other, the flag to Constantine; on the other side Saint Peter hands the pallium to Leo III and the flag to Charlemagne. What is the significance?

Constantine's father, Constantius Chlorus, from 303 neglected to apply the anti-Christian edicts that were still in effect. Humanitarianism and political realism were at the root of this tolerance: In spite of three centuries of legal and bloody persecution, Christianity triumphed everywhere and even succeeded in erecting a house of its own in Rome. Thus, it was easier and wiser to tolerate it, perhaps even give it legal standing, and make use of its strength and unity. That is the situation inherited by Constantine, who was racked by metaphysical, and perhaps mystical, concerns. He seriously wondered if God existed and, if He did, who might He be. This personal problem for Constantine was capital for Sylvester.

Constantine started with a religion that had 36 gods and goddesses and tried to put some order into this world. But once direction had been given, it seemed insufficient to him and he was tempted to abandon Olympus for a more solid theology.

Around 310, Constantine dreamed of a universe guided by a single God, a mysterious intelligence that dominates all beings. Around 312, he had the impression that the God of the Christians, the single God of the religion that resisted all massacres, could be the God he sought. Around October 10 that year, a rare astronomical phenomenon was visible, and Constantine, anxious to read God's message, could not help but see it. The planets Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter, and some neighboring stars, formed a cross in the sky that was like the cross of the Christians. Perhaps in addition, an inner voice of grace made Constantine understand that this sign of the Christians was the sign of the true God he was seeking.

At the end of 312, Constantine wrote to Maxim Daia to ask him to stop the persecutions in Asia Minor. In January 313, Constantine issued a decree directing restoration of confiscated goods to the Christians in North Africa.

February 313 saw the first Augustus Constantine and his imperial lieutenant Licinius (in the East) signing the landmark Edict of Milan. The edict stipulated freedom of conscience and cult for the Christians and others, and restitution to the Christian communities of the goods that had been confiscated from them by the State.

That same April Constantine gave instructions to African officials in favor of the Christian clergy and places of worship. During the summer he donated land to various churches, especially in Rome. That October he conceded the munera civila to the whole Catholic clergy of the Empire.

Sylvester died before Constantine and was buried on December 31, 335, in the cemetery of Priscilla on the via Salaria. But his tomb and the epitaph that adorned it were destroyed when the Arian Lombards passed through. The major part of his remains were translated in 761 by Pope Paul I to San Silvestro in Capite, now the national church of English Catholics in Rome.

The cultus for Sylvester did not arise for another 150 years, when Pope Saint Symmachus attributed two Roman councils to Sylvester and had a mosaic placed behind the episcopal throne in the Equitius honoring his predecessor. The Eastern Church, however, celebrates him also with the title "isapostole," equal to the apostles, on May 21.

So, through the obscure lense of time Sylvester appears almost mute, impassive, yet 300 laws concerned with justice, equity, and an evangelical purity were passed during his 25-year reign. He is considered a great pope in the memory he left to his close successors. Perhaps he can be considered the holy patron of high persons in delicate situations (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Walsh).

In art, Saint Sylvester is shown in various scenes with Emperor Constantine. He might also be shown (1) trampling a dragon, (2) with an angel holding a cross and olive branch (the peace of the Church), (3) with Saint Romana (Roeder). Farmer reports that he is generally represented by a chained dragon or bull and a tiara, and the principal scene represented is that of the baptism of Constantine (Farmer). Sylvester is still especially venerated in Pisa (Roeder).


Blessed Walembert (Garembert) of Cambrai, OSA (AC)
Born near Furness, Belgium, in 1084; died 1141. Walembert became an hermit and then built an Augustinian abbey on Mont-Saint-Martin in the diocese of Cambrai. He became the first abbot while his sister was abbess (Benedictines, Encyclopedia).


Blessed Wisinto of Kremsmünster, OSB (AC)
Died after 1250. Wisinto was a monk and priest of the great Austrian abbey of Kremsmünster. He has always been venerated as a saint, rather than a beatus, by the Austrian Benedictines (Benedictines).


Zoticus of Constantinople (RM)
Died c. 350. At the time Constantine transferred the capital of his empire from Rome to Constantinople, the Roman priest Zoticus also migrated. The saint built a hospital for the poor and orphans in the new capital. He was a confessor of the faith under the Arian Emperor Constantius (Benedictines).



About Saints of the Day
These summaries were prepared in 1998 by St. Patrick's parishioner Katherine I. Rabenstein and are reproduced on www.saintpatrickdc.org with the permission of the author. Note that the content has not been updated since that time and represents the research of the author. An alphabetical index of all saints on our site is available. Source references are also available. HTML formatting © 2007-2008 by St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.