31 December 2023

St Sylvester, Pope & Confessor

From Dom Prosper Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.

So far, the only ones we have seen standing round the Crib of our Jesus have been Martyrs: Stephen, overwhelmed with the shower of stones; John, the Martyr in heart, who survived his fiery torture; the Holy Innocents, massacred by the sword; Thomas, murdered in his Cathedral—these are the champions of Christ, who keep guard in the palace of Bethlehem. Yet all Christians are not called to be Martyrs. Besides this countless battalion of the King’s favorite soldiers, there are other troops of sainted heroes which form the heavenly army—and amongst these, there are the Confessors, who conquered the world without shedding their blood in the combat. Though the place of honor in the service of the King belongs to the Martyrs, yet did the Confessors fight manfully for the glory of his name and the spreading of his Kingdom. The palm is not in their hands, but they are crowned with the crown of justice, and Jesus, who gave it to them, has made it be part of his own glory that they should be near his throne.

The Church would therefore grace this glorious Christmas Octave with the name of one of her Children, should represent, at Bethlehem, the whole class of her unmartyred Saints. She chose a Confessor—St. Sylvester: a Confessor who governed the Church of Rome, and therefore the universal Church; a Pontiff whose reign was long and peaceful; a Servant of Jesus Christ adorned with every virtue, who was sent to edify and guide the world immediately after those fearful combats, that had lasted for three hundred years, and in which millions of Christians had gained victory by martyrdom, under the leadership of Thirty Popes—predecessors of St. Sylvester—and they too all Martyrs.

So that Sylvester is messenger of the Peace, which Christ came to give to the world, and of which the Angels sang on Christmas Night. He is the friend of Constantine; he confirms the Council of Nicaea; he organizes the discipline of the Church for the new era on which she is now entering—the era of Peace. His predecessors in the See of Peter imaged Jesus in his sufferings; Sylvester represented Jesus in his triumph. His appearance during this Octave reminds us that the Divine Child who lies wrapped in swaddling clothes and is the object of Herod’s persecution is, notwithstanding all these humiliations, the Prince of Peace, the Father of the world to come. (Isaiah 9:6)

Let us read the history of Sylvester’s peaceful Pontificate, as related by the Church in her Breviary. The character of our work excludes purely critical discussions, and we, therefore, say nothing of the objections that have been raised against the Emperor Constantine’s having received Baptism, in Rome, at the hands of St. Sylvester. It is sufficient for us to tell our readers that the Roman tradition regarding that event has been adopted by the most learned men, such as Baronius, Schelstrate, Bianchini, Marangoni, Vignoli, etc.

Sylvester, a Roman by birth, and son of Rufinus, was brought up, from childhood, by the priest Cyrinus. He imitated his master by his learning and a good life, and, when in his thirtieth year, was ordained Priest of the holy Roman Church, by Pope Marcellinus. He surpassed the rest of the clergy in the admirable manner wherein he performed his sacred duties, and was chosen as the successor of Pope Melchiades under the reign of the Emperor Constantine. This Emperor, having been advised by his physicians to seek the cure of his leprosy by bathing in infants’ blood, was visited in his sleep by the holy Apostles Peter and Paul. The bade him refuse the sinful remedy of the bath, if he desired to be cleansed from his leprosy, and go to Sylvester, who was then hiding on mount Soracte; that having been regenerated in the saving waters of baptism, he should give orders that Churches, after the manner of the Christians, should be built in every part of the Roman empire; and that he should destroy the idols of the false gods, and worship the true God. Constantine, therefore, obeying the heavenly admonition, caused the most diligent search to be made for Sylvester, and, when found, to be brought to him. This being done, and the Pontiff having shown Constantine the portraits of the two Apostles he had seen in his sleep, the Emperor was baptized, and healed, and became exceedingly zealous for the defense and propagation of the Christian religion.

By the persuasion of the holy Pontiff, Constantine also built several Basilicas, which he enriched with sacred images, and most princely donations and gifts: he, moreover, granted permission to the Christians publicly to erect churches, which, previously, they were forbidden to do. Two Councils were held during the reign of this Pontiff: firstly, that of Nicaea, over which presided his Legates; Constantine was present, and 318 Bishops were assembled there; the holy and Catholic faith was explained, and Arius and his followers were condemned; the Council was confirmed by Sylvester, at the request of all the Fathers assembled: the second was that of Rome, at which 284 Bishops were present, and there, again, Arius was condemned.

Sylvester also passed several decrees most useful to the Church of God. For example: That the Chrism should be blessed by a Bishop only; That the Priest should anoint the crown of the head of the person he baptized; That Deacons should wear Dalmatics in the church, and a linen ornament on the left arm; That the Sacrifice of the Altar should not be celebrated excepting on a linen veil. He laid down the length of time, during which, they who received Orders, should exercise the functions belonging to each Order, before passing to a higher grade. He made it illegal for a layman to be the public accuser of a cleric, and forbade a cleric to plead before a civil tribunal. The names of Saturday and Sunday were to be still used; but all the other days of the week were to be called Ferias (Second Feria, Third Feria, and the rest), as the Church had already begun to call them; hereby signifying, that the clergy should put aside all other cares, and spend every day in the undisturbed service of God. To this heavenly prudence, wherewith he governed the Church, he ever joined the most admirable holiness of life, and charity towards the poor. For instance, he arranged, that those among the clergy who had no means, should live with wealthy members of the clergy; and, again, that everything needed for their maintenance, should be supplied to Virgins consecrated to God. He governed the Church twenty-one years, ten months, and a day. He was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla, on the Salarian Way. He seven times gave ordinations in the December month; the number of the ordained was, forty-two Priests, twenty-five Deacons, and sixty-five Bishops for various places.

The ancient Liturgical Books of Italy had a Proper Office for St. Sylvester. We have found, in the Breviary of the old Abbatial (now the Collegiate) Church of St. Barbary, at Mantua, a very beautiful Office; and from this we extract the following Antiphons and Responsories:

The storm of persecution being calmed, the religion of Christ our Lord was spread, in the Pontificate of blessed Sylvester, throughout the entire dominions of the Roman Empire.

Holily did Sylvester administer all things; he propagated the faith, and gave liberty and confidence for the preaching the Gospel in the City, the Mistress of kingdoms.

He suffered much, and it filled his life with merit; he made many rules, and they proved his wisdom.

Sylvester was a holy man, and led a life of heaven while on this earth: being a Pontiff of exceeding virtue, he governed the Church with heavenly prudence.

Being chosen Pontiff of God’s Church, he sought a hiding place on Mount Soracte, that he might escape the cruelty of the tyrant Maxentius: there, he besought God to bless the Church, at length, with peace.

While hid on the mount, the Apostles Peter and Paul admonish the Emperor to call the Pontiff: Sylvester regenerates Constantine in the saving waters of baptism, and heals him of leprosy.

Having fully instructed the Emperor Constantine in the faith of Christ, he was the first to publicly consecrate a Church, and it was the Basilica built by the Emperor: he called it Our Savior’s.

Sylvester, solicitous for the glory of God and the salvation of men, instructed the people in the knowledge of the saving doctrine, and delivered them, in a wonderful manner, from the errors of a wily serpent.

Convoking the General Council of Nicaea, where there was assembled a mystic number of Bishops, he subverted the machinations of heretics, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

This is the holy Pontiff, in whose day, Christ gave Peace to the Church, and at the Roman Empire prostrated at the feet of a Priest the lofty summit of its ancient glory.

O blessed Pontiff, and admirable Pastor of the universal Church! whom the Lord glorified in the sight of all nations, and exalted above the Emperor of Rome; O thou, that art now exulting in heavenly glory, pray for us to our Lord.

O shining Light and Brightness, blessed and most holy Sylvester! in whose time, the clouds of persecution were scattered over the heads of the Faithful, and the calmness of peace appeared: help us by thy prayers, that we may forever enjoy the blessing of peace.

The Greek Church is enthusiastic in its hymns of praise to St. Sylvester. In the stanzas we extract from her Menaea, she gives to this great Pope the whole honor of the Nicene Council, and honors him as the conqueror of the Arian heresy.

In magno Vespertino, et passim

Father and Hierarch, Sylvester! holily enlightened by the Light of holiness! thou didst enlighten the Faithful, by thy light-giving teachings, to adore the unity of nature in the Three Persons, and didst dispel the darkness of heresies. Therefore, we, with great solemnity, joyfully hymn today thy glorious memory.

O Father Sylvester, that carriest God with thee! thou visible pillar of fire, that goest before the holy flock! thou shade-giving cloud, that ever leadest the faithful out of Egyptian errors by thy incomparable precepts! we venerate thy glorious and most holy memory.

O Sylvester, divinely speaking Father! by the torrent of thy prayers thou didst sink the many-headed dragon in the mire. Holy and admirable Pontiff! thou didst lead thousands of Pagans unto God, and didst humble the haughty Jews, by the astounding miracles thou didst so wisely work before their eyes. Therefore, do we honor and bless thee.

Perfect in thy obedience to the Law of God, and admirably versed in the knowledge of the inspired Scriptures, thou didst teach the truth to the heathen philosophers; thou didst lead them to confess Christ together with the Father and Spirit, and say: Let us sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously magnified.

Hierarch inspired of God, Sylvester our Father! thou art shown to us as anointing Priests in the Holy Ghost, and enlightening the people, O most sacred Pontiff! Thou didst put the errors of heresy to flight, and didst feed the flock, making the waters of holiness to flow upon the pastures of souls that know God.

By thy words, which left no escape, thou didst unravel the knots of sophistry; thou didst bind to the faith them that were bound by error, opening their minds by thy interpretation of the Scriptures, most blessed Hierarch, our Father.

By thy prayers, O blessed one! thou didst forever paralyze and imprison the wicked serpent, who sought to infect with his detestable pestilence them that approached thee: thou didst fasten down the dragons with the seal of the Cross, as with prison-gates and bolts.

Supreme Pastor of the Church of Christ! thou lendest to the beauty of the holy Octave of Christmas the luster of thy glorious merits. There thou worthily representest the countless choir of Confessors, for it was thou didst steer the barque of Peter after the three hundred years’ tempest, leading her with watchful love in her first hours of calm. The pontifical Diadem, reflecting heaven in its gems, sits on thy venerable brow. The Keys of the Kingdom of heaven are in thy hands; thou openest it for the admission of the Gentiles, who embrace the faith of Christ; thou shuttest it against the Arians, in that august Council of Nicaea, where thou presidest by thy Legates, and to which thou givest authority, by confirming it with thy apostolic approbation. The Furious storms will again soon rage against the Church, and the angry billows of heresy will beat against her; thou wilt then be in the bosom of God; but, together with St. Peter, thou wilt keep guard over the purity of the Faith of Rome. Thou wilt support Julius; thou wilt rescue Liberius; and Athanasius, aided by thy prayers, will find a shelter within the walls of Rome.

Under thy peaceful reign, Christian Rome receives the reward of her long-endured persecution. She is acknowledges as Queen of Christendom, and her empire becomes the sole empire that is universal. The Son of thy pastoral zeal, Constantine, leaves the city of Romulus, which has now become the City of Peter; the Imperial majesty would be eclipsed by that greater one of the Vicar of Christ; he makes Byzantium his capital, leaving Rome to be that of the Pontiff-King. The temples of the false gods become ruins, and make room for the Christian Basilicas, in which are enshrined the Relics of the Apostles and Martyrs. In a word, the Church has triumphed over the Prince of this world, and the victory is typified by the destruction of that Dragon, which infected the air by its poisonous breath.

Honored with all these wonderful prerogatives, saintly Vicar of Christ! forget not the Christian people, which was once thy flock. It asks thee, on this thy Feast, to make it know and love the mystery of the Birth of Jesus. By the sublime Symbol which embodies the Faith of Nicaea, and which thou didst confirm and promulgate throughout the whole Church—thou hast taught us to acknowledge this sweet Infant as God of God, Light of Light, begotten not made. Consubstantial to the Father. Thou biddest us to come and adore this Little Child, as He by whom all things were made. Holy Confessor of Christ! vouchsafe to present us to him, as the Martyrs have done, whose Feasts have filled up the days since his Nativity. Pray to him for us, that our desires for true virtue may be fulfilled, that we may persevere in his holy love, that we may conquer the world and our passions, and at length, that we may obtain the Crown of justice, which is to be the reward of our Confessing him before men and is the only object of our ambition.

Pontiff of Peace! from the abode of rest where thou now dwellest, look down upon the Church of God, surrounded as she is by implacable enemies, and beseech Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to hasten her triumph. Cast thine eye on that Rome which is so dear to thee, and which is so faithful in her love of thee. Protect and direct her Father, King, and Pontiff. May she triumph over the wiles of political intrigue, the violence of tyranny, the craft of heretics, the perfidy of schismatics, the apathy of worldlings, and the cowardice of her own children. May she be honored, loved, and obeyed. May the sublime dignity of the Priesthood be recognized. May the spiritual power enjoy freedom of action. May the civil authority work hand in hand with the Church. May the Kingdom of God now come, and be received throughout the whole world, and may there be but one Fold and one Shepherd.

Still watch, O holy Sylvester! over the sacred treasure of the Faith, which thou didst defend when on earth against every danger. May its light put out the vapors of man’s proud dreams, those false and daring doctrines which mislead countless souls. May every mortal bow down his understanding to the obedience of faith in the divine Mysteries, without which all human wisdom is but folly. May Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary, be King, by his Church, over the minds and hearts of all men.

Pray for Byzantium, that was once called the New Rome, but which so soon became the capital of heresies, and the scene of everything that could degrade a Christian country. Pray that the days of her deep humiliation may be shortened; that she may again see herself united with Rome; that she may honor Christ and his Vicar; that she may obey, and by her obedience be saved. May the people, misled and debased by her influence and rule, recover their dignity as men, which can only subsist when men have faith, or be regained by a return to the faith.

And lastly, O Conqueror of Satan! keep this hellish monster in the prison whither thou didst drive him; confound his pride and his schemes; let him no longer seduce the people of God’s earth; but may all the children of the Church, according to the word of Peter, thy predecessor, resist him, by the strength of their faith. (1 Peter 5:9)

Let us, on this Seventh Day within the Christmas Octave, consider the newborn Babe wrapped in the swaddling clothes of infancy. They are the indications of weakness; the Child that is swathed in them is helpless and dependent on others; another’s hand must loosen his bands, and until then, he is not free to move. It was in this infantine helplessness, and in the bondage of human weakness that He who gives life and motion to every creature, first appeared on our earth!

Let us contemplate our Blessed Lady wrapping the limbs of her Child, her God, in these swathing bands: but who can picture to himself the respectful love wherewith she does it? She adores his humiliations—humiliations which he has taken upon himself in order that he may sanctify every period of man’s life, even that feeblest of all, infancy. So deep was the wound of our pride that it needed a remedy of such exceeding efficacy as this! Can we refuse to become little children now that He, who give us the precept, sets us so touching an example? Sweet Jesus! we adore thee wrapped in thy Swaddling Clothes, and our ambition is to imitate thy divine humility.

“Let us not,” says the holy Abbot Guerric, “let not the eye of your faith be offended or shocked, Brethren, at these outward humble coverings. As the Mother of Jesus wrapped him in swaddling clothes, so does Grace and Wisdom, which is your spiritual mother, veil over, with certain material things, the truth of our Incarnate God, and hide, under the representation of symbolical figures, the majesty of this same Jesus. When I, Brethren, deliver to you, by my words, the Truth (which is Jesus), I am swathing Jesus in bands of exceeding great poverty. Happy the soul that loves and adores not its Jesus the less because he receives him thus poorly clad! Let us, therefore, most devoutly think upon our Lord clothed in the swathing bands wherewith his Mother covered his infant limbs; that so, in the world of eternal happiness, we may see the glory and beauty wherewith his Father hath clad him; and this glory is that of the Only Begotten Son of the Father.” (Sermon the Fifth, On our Lord’s Nativity)

Let us once more celebrate the joyous Birth of our Jesus, making use of this ancient Prose so redolent of the piety of the ages of Faith. It is found in the old Roman-French Missals.


Every choir devoutly sings to the new-born King,
Melodizing each word with organ-notes.
Dear Holiday! whereon the earth is filled with joy, ne’er felt before.
’Twas on this grand Night, that Angels’ voices intoned the sweet Gloria.
A dazzling light shone at midnight on the Shepherds.
They are tending their flocks, when suddenly they hear the divine announcement:
“Glory infinite in the heavens—and on earth, Peace:
“He that is eternal, is born of the glorious Virgin!”
Then, let the heavenly host give forth excessive jubilee,
And earth, from pole to pole, thrill with the loud melodious song.
The enemy’s intolerable cruelty is crushed.
Let the whole race of men sing praise to the God now born upon the earth.
Peace is restored to the world; let all things rejoice at the birth of the Child.
Let our Gloria be sung today with voices full and shrill, that it may echo through creation.
May He that alone rules all things—
May He that alone governs all things—
In his mercy save all kingdoms, and give them Peace.

The saintly Abbot of Cluy, Peter the Venerable, is the author of the Hymn we will now offer to the incomparable Mother. It is full of that scriptural unction which filled the writer’s fervent soul.


Rejoice ye Heavens! and be glad, O earth! let no man keep his lips from praise.
It was by the Virgin that man was restored to the primeval state.
A Virgin brought forth our God, and the ancient anger ceased:
The ancient discord ceased, and Peace and Glory came in its stead.
Guilty man was drawn from the mire, when God lay on his Crib of straw.
A wretched Stable held then within it the Food of heaven’s own gift.
The Virgin feeds the Creator—the Redeemer, who had become her Child.
Divine Wisdom lay hid in childhood.
The milk of the Mother’s breast fed her Jesus; her Jesus feeds us with the milk of his tender mercy,
Giving us the sweetness of grace through the assuming our human nature.
Therefore, let our sweetest music give our Ave Maria,
In sacred words, and with speaking hearts.
Hail! Virgin ever Blest, that didst destroy the curse.
Hail! Mother of the Most High, and Spouse of the Lamb most meek.
Thou didst conquer the serpent, and crush his head,
For the God, that was born of thee, was the serpent’s death.
Thou art the Queen of heaven, and Reparatrix of the earth,
The loved Mother of men, and the terror of the demons of hell.
The Scriptural figures of Window, Gate, Fleece, Palace, House, Temple, and Earth—all are fulfilled in thee.
Thou art the Lily, by thy virginity; thou art the Rose, by thy martyrdom:
The Garden enclosed, the Fountain of gardens that cleansest the defilements of sin,
Purifiest them that are unclean, and bringest the dead to life.
O Queen of the Angels, and, after God, and Hope of mankind!
Thou art the couch of the King, and the Throne of God.
Thou art the Star of the East, that puttest to flight the shadows of the Western night.
Thou art the Aurora, the Sun’s harbinger, and the Day that knowest not night.
Thou art Mother of the God who is our Father; thou giveth life to Him who giveth life to us.
Oh! may the Holy Mother’s confidence in her son reconcile Him to us his children!
Mother of Jesus! pray for us to thy Divine Son, that he forgive us our sins,
And, after this our pardon, give us grace and glory.

The Civil Year ends today. At Midnight, a New Year will begin, as the world counts time, and the present one will sink into the abyss of eternity. It is one step further on in our lives, and brings us nearer to that end of all things which St. Peter says is at hand. (1 Peter 4:7) The Liturgy, which brings a new Ecclesiastical Year on the First Sunday of Advent, has no special prayers in the Roman Church, for the beginning of the Year on the First of January; but her spirit—which takes an interest in everything affecting the well-being of individuals or society at large—her spirit is, that we should, sometime in the course of this last day of the Year, make a fervent act of thanksgiving to God for the blessings he has bestowed upon us during the past twelve months.

Rome sets us the example. Today, the Sovereign Pontiff goes, in state, to the Gesù (or, as we should call it, Jesus’ Church), and there assists at a solemn Te Deum; the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament follows it, blessing, as it were, the public act of thanksgiving, and giving a pledge of blessings for the coming Year.

The only Church that has given a Liturgical expression to the sentiments which the close of the Year inspires is that of the Mozarabic Rite, in which there occurs the following beautiful Preface, which we gladly offer to our readers. It is part of the Mass of the Sunday which immediately precedes the Feast of the Epiphany.


It is meet and just, that we should give thanks to thee, O Holy Lord, Eternal Father, Almighty God, through Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord; who being, before all time, born of thee, God the Father, did, together with thee and the Holy Ghost, create all seasons, and deigned himself to be born in time, from the womb of the Virgin Mary. He, though the eternal One, established the fixed revolutions of years, through which this world runs its course, and divided the Year by regular and suitable changes of Seasons, wherewith the Sun should, in orderly variety, mark the round of the Year, as he ran the measured circuit of his course. For we, this day, dedicate, by the gifts we offer, the close of the past year, and the commencement of that which follows, unto Him, the living God, by whose mercy we have lived through the years gone bye, and are about to commence the beginning of another. Since, therefore, a sacred devotion, wherein we all share, has this Year brought us together to invoke this thy Divine Son, we pour out our humble prayers unto thee, O God, the Father! that, whereas thou hast consecrated the present portion of the year by the Birth of this same thy Son—thou mayest vouchsafe to make this year a happy one unto us, and to give us to spend it in thy service. Fill, too, the earth with its fruits, and deliver our souls and bodies from sickness and sin. Take away scandal, defeat our enemy, keep down famine, and drive far from our country all such events as would bring evil upon her. Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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