Saint Sylvester, the Last Saint of the Year

On this last day of the calendar year, we celebrate in muted tones the mysterious and shadowy Pope Saint Sylvester I, who reigned from 314, the year after Constantine made Christianity legal after his momentous victory at the Milvian Bridge, until his death on this day in 335. But he must have been a vigorous man, for his reign was nothing if not externally eventful: With her new-found legal status, the Church could build churches, and build she did, under the Pope’s direction: It is from this time that we have the magnificent Saint John Lateran, Santa Croce in Jerusalem, as well as the original Saint Peter’s Basilica – before the splendid renaissance structure we now know.  There is also the ‘Donation of Constantine’, steeped in legend and controversy – now considered an eighth century forgery, but one never knows what historical roots it might have had – with the emperor giving the Pope territory around Rome as a basis for the Church’s temporal apostolate and authority, which, whatever the necessity of such temporal power, would cause so much trouble in the Middle Ages, right up to the modern era (until the compromise reached with the Lateran Accord in 1929).

Sylvester also sent legates, Vitus and Vincentius, to the Council of Nicaea in 325, approving its decrees, including the condemnation of Arianism, defining for all time the divinity of Christ as homo-ousios, ‘consubstantial’, with the Father.

Stories told of Sylvester include that he cured the emperor of leprosy; that the emperor submitted to the Pope, walking on foot and leading him on horseback, a symbol that earthly power is subordinate to the spiritual that would culminate in Canossa, and is still a doctrine of our Faith. For our end is heaven, not this earth, the form of which is passing away.

There is an eschatological note to this final day of the calendar year, as there was a month ago in the end of the liturgical year with Christ the King, and the beginning of Advent. In the first reading this morning, the Apostle John warns of Antichrist, and that already many antichrists have come, whose spirit may be recognized primarily, as the Apostle warns elsewhere, in the denial of Christ’s Incarnation – see, Arianism, and Islam today. We may extend this. to include opposition to the Church, the sacraments, to the truth of the end and purpose of Man. As the Catechism puts it, the antichrist will preach a ‘secular messianism’, a salvation in this world alone, that our happiness and security are to be found in the here and now – in fact, ‘stay safe’ might be his motto. Hence, radical environmentalism – becoming more bizarre and cult-like, with the ironically named ‘Extinction Rebellion’. Population control, socialism, hedonism, selfism, relativism, transgenderism, with an easy euthanasia when it all becomes too much and the inevitable suffering becomes ‘intolerable’. Get rid of all those nasty humans, who are, as their analogy goes, a virus on Mother Gaia.

One might think that 2022 was our annus horribilis, (to say nothing of 2020) and in many ways it was – but like the weather, all things are from the hands of God for our good. And as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. It’s all how we approach and see things.

So we Christians live in joy and hope in the midst of the strife, like children, in laughter, life and love itself, with each new year bringing us a little closer to eternal life, for which we were made, and hopefully many new little souls to enjoy that life (see Sean Fitzpatrick’s reflection, and Terry McDermott’s marvelous piece in these pages on children who offer their brief lives and their crosses to Christ. How much we ‘adults’ have yet to learn!).

One gains a plenary indulgence for reciting – or, better yet, singing! – the Church’s ancient hymn of praise and gratitude, the Te Deum on this New Year’s Eve. We should give thanks for all things, our works, prayers, joys and, yes, our own sufferings. So rejoice, belt it out, loud and clear, and fill thyself with grand, good cheer, for our redemption is nearer at hand now than it was last year.

And may 2023 be filled with Christ’s grace and truth, for one and all.