There are two saints named Sylvester.
Saint Sylvester of Assisi was one of the first twelve followers of the very famous Saint Francis, also of Assisi. He was also the first Franciscan priest. One time Francis ordered Sylvester to drive the devils out of their city. Sylvester went to the city gate and shouted, “In the name of almighty God and by virtue of the command of his servant Francis, depart from here, all you evil spirits.” It is said that peace returned to the city. We could use a few more saints like Sylvester of Assisi.
The other Saint Sylvester was a pope, and his memorial is today. He’s called Saint Sylvester I and he has his own minor basilica and titular church in Rome. Not many people can say that, even among the saints. He was ordained just before the unpleasantness with Diocletian and was made Bishop of Rome just after Constantine’s big win in 312, so he had seen something of the ugly side of life by the time he became pope.
Serving as pope during the reign of Constantine couldn’t have been easy. Even though the church undertook a lot of building projects, successfully grappled with its Christological controversies, and generally enjoyed a time of prosperity and peace, much of those successes can be laid to the account of Constantine, not Sylvester. Lucky for Saint Sylvester that his memorial is December 31, though, because that ensures that there are more fireworks and celebrating on his special day than on Constantine’s. Hardly anybody shoots off fireworks on May 21, the feast day of Constantine.
You may know that this day is associated with fireworks, revelry, singing of Auld Lang Syne, and the making of New Year’s Resolutions. But there are some other pretty cool traditions associated with this day too: In Belgium, for example, there is a tradition that an unmarried woman who does not finish her work by the time of sunset on Saint Silvester’s Day will not get married that year. In Italy they eat lentils and slices of sausage because the sliced sausage looks like coins and symbolizes good fortune. And, in Switzerland, on the morning of Saint Sylvester’s Day, children compete to see which one can wake up the earliest; the child who arises the latest is playfully jeered.
There is something special — maybe even sacred — about marking the passage of time from year to year. We divide our time up into days and months as a matter of convenience. A whole year, though, is a thing to behold, something to think about. This one piece of our lives, the piece we call 2017, is now coming into focus. They are even doing it on television: The retrospectives, the top ten of this or that for 2017… there is a desire to look at where we’ve been, what happened. And there are questions, did we do well? We can see the failures and successes of the past more clearly when there is a blank slate before us.
We don’t have to look back on our whole lives. There are way too many tales to tell in a life. But, in the quiet of this Seventh Day of Christmas, we can look back on a small piece of the whole and celebrate or weep as appropriate. And plan! Next year is a new opportunity.
As we plan for the great successes of 2018, though, remember Sylvester I. Even though his reign was dominated by Constantine, he kept his head down and did the work of pope. The bishops remained loyal to him, and the church grew in power because Sylvester allowed another to take the lead and receive the glory. Sylvester didn’t lose sight of the fact that to live a humble and holy life was more important than living a life of glorious successes. In many ways the western church was founded during his pontificate: The Council of Nicaea gave us a creed, Sylvester himself may have given us the term consubstantial, the great persecutions were over, and the Christian empire grew rich and became the foundation of western civilization. If he had insisted on the glory of all that, there would have been nothing but trouble.
If 2018 turns out to be filled with wonderful successes, that’s great. I hope mine is too. But, if it doesn’t, just keep on track like Sylvester. Humble and holy. That was the success of Sylvester’s life, and it can be the success of a year too.
Linda McMillan is traveling today.
Image: St Sylvester I and Constantine By Unknown medieval artist in Rome – Unknown, Public Domain, Link
Some Notes of Possible Interest
You can read more about lots of saints at CatholicSaints.Info. It should be your go-to site for saintly reading. There are alphabetical lists of saints, lists of saints by patronage, calendar listings, and brief hagiographies on all of them.
I have also relied on “Lives of the Saints for Every Day of the Year,” available at Amazon. You don’t want to get this for your Kindle. Get the real book, tuck it into the cushion of your favorite chair. It will be there for you like an old friend.
You can read more about Saint Sylvester I here and here.
You can read more about Saint Sylvester’s church here.
Regarding the story about Saint Sylvester healing Constantine of leprosy, it’s not a factual story, but we can say that it’s true because being taught and initiated by a true master is healing. That is the point of the writing. Remember, hagiography, or writing about a saint’s life, was never intended to be truly factual. It’s intended to express truths in other ways. If you want the facts get a biography.
Eastern Orthodox Churches observe Saint Sylvester’s Day on January 2, so you can wish your Eastern Orthodox friends a happy Saint Sylvester Day next week.
You may notice that spellings for these saints vary. There are Sylvester and Silvester. Both are correct.
Auld Lang Syne is a Scottish poem set to music. It is traditionally sung to say good bye to the old year and to welcome in a new one. You can hear it here.
The information about Saint Sylvester’s Day in other countries comes from this article in Wikipedia. It’s not an academic source, but this is not an academic paper. The point is that there are a lot of different ways to observe this day.
You can read more about how other people observe the transition from one year to another here.
The citations from CatholicSaints.Info
“Blessed Sylvester of Assisi“. CatholicSaints.Info. 31 October 2016. Web. 30 December 2017. <https://catholicsaints.info/saint-sylvester-of-assisi/>
“Pope Saint Sylvester I“. CatholicSaints.Info. 5 October 2017. Web. 30 December 2017. <https://catholicsaints.info/pope-saint-sylvester-i/>