Fr. Scott A. Haynes
A MEDITATION FOR THE FEAST OF ST. SYLVESTER I
- December 31 -
Pope Sylvester I
Fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ, when Moses was leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, a pharaoh ordered his servants to carve a gigantic obelisk out of a pile of stone. The obelisk was the biggest of its kind ever hewn. Artisans etched hieroglyphs up and down its slim sides while it was still lying on its back.
False Egyptian god, Aten
Then it was raised vertically to decorate a shrine dedicated to the false Egyptian god Aten, a sub-deity of the pagan sun god Ra. For a millennium, the towering obelisk served as a beacon in the middle of the vast desert. During the second half of the fourth century A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantius II desired the obelisk for a new city he was building.
As a result, it was extricated from the deserts of ancient Egypt and loaded into a purpose-built vessel. It made its way from the Nile to the Mediterranean to the Tiber and eventually to Rome. This historic monument is the world's largest of its kind and now proudly stands in front of St. John Lateran Basilica. And its foundation bears the name of today's saint, Pope Sylvester I.
In 314, Saint Sylvester succeeded to the Chair of St. Peter. This occurred not long after the Christian population of Italy had increased dramatically as a result of Constantine's military victory and the subsequent Edict of Milan. It would not be until the year 380 A.D., that Constantine would institute Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the Church was given some much-needed room to breathe by Constantine during the reign of Pope St. Silvester.
Pope Sylvester I
The Church emerged from the catacombs and from the private home churches into the grand basilicas of Rome. A new Christian calendar was introduced, sermons were given in the open, and statues of Christ, Mary, and the saints were able to be publicly displayed. Under Pope Sylvester's steady hand, the Church expanded rapidly, eventually overtaking the imperial administration of the Roman Empire. Any number of mistakes may have derailed the gradual conversion of pagan Rome to Christianity. But Sylvester and his successors took command, held the wheel steady, and brought the Barque of Peter safely into port.
Pope Sylvester with the Emperor Constantine
In 325, Pope Sylvester sent four legates in his place to the historic Council of Nicaea. The Emperor Constantine convened the Council, greeted bishops by kissing their palms while they were being tortured, attended parts of the Council's meetings in person, and hosted a lavish dinner to celebrate its conclusion.
Constantine at the Council of Nicea
To a large extent, Eastern bishops and theologians dominated the Council. Western Christianity will not see its great theologians (Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, and Leo) until much later. Major figures in Christian thought at the time of St. Sylvester resided in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor. During this time, Rome fell into disrepair. By 330, even Constantine had to leave Rome, relocating the imperial capital to Constantinople.
The Bishop of Rome, however, retained his position as the Vicar of Christ. With the respect and admiration that Pope Sylvester , it was if the people were craning their necks to hear what he had to say. While he will not go down in history as a brilliant theologian, Pope St. Sylvester helped strengthen the institutional foundations of Catholic theology.
Obelisk before the Lateran Basilica
There is an inscription in the Lateran obelisk's base that claims this spot was where Saint Sylvester baptized Constantine. But time has shown that, Constantine, who was spiritually ambivalent, was baptized in Northwest Turkey shortly before his death in 337, two years after Sylvester's death.
Baptism of Constantine