Pope St. Sylvester I

The fourth-century Pope St. Sylvester was the thirty-third Bishop of Rome and the first to be elected after the legalization of Christianity. The great Roman Emperor Constantine was convinced that his victory over his rivals for the throne at the Battle of Milvian Bridge outside Rome was due to the intervention of Christ; in gratitude, he issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which allowed Christians to practice their faith freely without fear of persecution. Upon the death of Pope St. Miltiades the following year, Sylvester was elected to the throne of Peter. Emperor Constantine, a fervent convert to Christianity (though he was not baptized until just before his death some years later), often interfered in the affairs of the Church in a paternal way.

Sylvester had to achieve a difficult balance between gratitude to the emperor and maintaining the Church’s independence; in this, he was fairly successful. St. Sylvester strove to preserve the Church’s authority in religious matters; he presided over the ordinations of various priests, deacons, and bishops, and sent delegates to the Council of Nicea in 325 (which officially defined the Church’s teaching that Jesus is both truly human and truly divine). St. Sylvester died in 335, and was one of the first non-martyrs to be venerated as a saint in Rome.

Lessons

1. Followers of Christ have to contend not only with enemies, but sometimes also with well-meaning but overbearing friends; this requires a mixture of gentleness and firmness, as St. Sylvester demonstrated with the Emperor Constantine.

2. Jesus is the Lord of History, and just as He once made use of a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, and later a pagan Roman Emperor named Constantine, to advance the spread of the Gospel, so He will continue to work on the Church’s behalf in our world today.

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