This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Monday, December 31, 2012

December 31 -- Feast of Pope Saint Sylvester

His Holiness SlyOne
The vehicle that was Pope Saint Sylvester I (probably more of a raeda than a Popemobile) had a pretty bad collision at the intersection of fact and fiction.  Let's look at the smash-up, which was sadly no accident, from a few different angles.

FactView One:  Sylvester, son of Rufinus, became the Bishop of Rome in 314, during the reign of Constantine.  He remained the pontiff until his death on December 31, 335.

FictionView One:  In various accounts written centuries later, Constantine encounters Pope Sylvester before his conversion.  If we take the "In Hoc Signo Vinces" story as true (even to some extent), then Constantine would have begun to look favorably on Christianity before the Sylvester was Pope, but in these later accounts, Constantine is hunting Christians to kill them.  Sylvester leads the Roman Christian clergy to Mount Soracte, a little north of the City.  Leprosy then strikes Constantine.  Saints Peter and Paul visit the Emperor in a dream, guiding him to Mount Soracte where he can get help from Sylvester.  Constantine accepts baptism, and, after a week of prayer and fasting, is healed.  He offers his crown to the Pope, who takes it and then gives it back, thereby subordinating all temporal authority to papal authority.  That's of course the point of the story -- justifying the Pope's power over the kings. 
Thanks, but no thanks:  Sylvester gives Constantine his hat back

FactView Two:  The Emperor Constantine was very generous to the Christian Church, especially in Rome, during his pontificate.  The Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Old Saint Peter's Basilica, and several churches built over the graves of saints were donations from Constantine.

FictionView Two:  In the leprosy story, Constantine and Sylvester return to Rome together.  When they get there, the City is being threatened by a dragon.  Sylvester steps up and defeats the dragon.  This is what is meant by gilding the lily

FactView Three:  Pope Sylvester II, who was baptized Gerbert d'Aurillac, selected the name Sylvester in 999 at age 53.  He did so because he wanted his friendship with Emperor Otto III (HRE) to be reflective of the close relationship between Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine.

Sylvester kills the Dragon of Rome
FictionView Four:  The Italian folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè related a similar tale to the leprosy story. In it, Constantine was already Christian, but sought a divorce from his wife so that he could marry another woman.  Pope Sylvester refused, and when the Emperor grew angry and threatened him, he hid in the forest.  The Emperor fell ill, was advised in a dream to submit to Sylvester, and gathered a posse to find him.  When they reached his cave, the Emperor and all his Jewish advisers (yeah, Constantine had a posse of Jews!) all accepted baptism, following which the illness was cured. 

FactView Four:  Sylvester sent two representatives to the Council of Nicea, perhaps the most important ecclesiastical council ever held, but did not attend it himself.  This was the Council where the Creed, the statement of doctrine that defined orthodoxy and heresy, was debated and ratified.  And the Pope, the heir to the throne of Peter the Rock on Whom the Church Was Founded, skipped it.

Perhaps he was like the Moody Blues, Led Zepplin, Spirit, Jethro Tull and Mind Garage, all of whom skipped Woodstock because they didn't think it would be a big deal or they had better offers elsewhere.
Rock n Roll's version of the Council of Nicea

Perhaps he knew his limitations and did not want to parade them in front of every other religious leader in the Empire.  Better to remain silent and let them think you a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt, right?

Perhaps he thought debating doctrine was beneath the dignity of the Pontifex Maximus.  He might have preferred to let them wrangle, and then to simply ratify whatever they came up with.  Maybe he was even savvy enough to have counted the votes ahead of time and knew that he didn't have to be there.

It is hard to know what was in his mind when he sent Vitus and Vicentius to Nicea as his legates.  Whatever kept him from it, he skipped the biggest show in Christianity since the Ascension.