Feast Day : December 31 (Western Church); January 2 and May 21 (Eastern Church)
Also known as: Silvester I
Sylvester was born in Rome, the son of Rufinus and Justa. He became a priest in the Church of Rome, serving in the parish of Equitius, and succeeded St. Miltiades (also Melchiades) in the Chair of St. Peter on January 31, 314. Sylvester became counselor and spiritual adviser to Emperor Constantine the Great, a visionary sympathetic to Christianity. According to legend, Constantine, a leper, had been told that the best way to cure his disease was to bathe in children’s blood. However, he had a vision in which SS. Peter and Paul appeared to him and advised him to seek baptism from Sylvester, which he did. He was healed, and in thanks ceded to the Church the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica (sites of work camps to which many Christians had been banished in the past). This dispensation is historic fact; it became known as the Donation of Constantine, and formed the basis of the Papal States. Nevertheless, whatever the truth about the miraculous cure, it is certain that Sylvester did not baptize the emperor, for that came only on his deathbed.
Constantine continued the support for the Church he had shown Miltiades. It is probable that it is to Sylvester rather than to Miltiades that he gave the Lateran Palace, and that Sylvester had its famous basilica built. Sylvester also either founded or restored the churches of St. Peter, on Vatican Hill, St. Lawrence- Outside-the-Walls and Santa Croce. His episcopal chair and his mitre, the oldest to have survived, are on display in the church of San Martino ai Monti, which he had built over a house used for worship during the persecutions of previous decades. Sylvester also had a church raised over the Catacombs of St. Priscilla on the Salerian Way. He was concerned not only with building churches but also with constructing the authority of the universal Church. His pontificate lasted 21 years and eleven months the longest of any up until his time during which 300 laws concerned with justice, equity and an evangelical purity were passed. In this work, also, he enjoyed Constantine’s support. Sylvester died before Constantine and was buried on December 31, 335, in the church on the Salerian Way.
Unfortunately, his tomb was destroyed by the Arian Lombards. In 761 the major part of his relics were translated to the Church of San Silvestro in Capito, today the national church of English Catholics in Rome, where they now rest. Although he did not die a martyr, Sylvester is honored as a saint. His cultus did not arise for 150 years after his death, however. Pope St. Symmachus (r. 498–514) had a mosaic honoring him placed behind the episcopal throne in the titular church of Equitius. Sylvester is especially venerated in Pisa. In the Eastern Church, he is celebrated with the title isapostole, “equal to the apostles.” In art, Sylvester is depicted in various scenes with Constantine. Generally he is represented by a chained dragon or bull and a tiara, and the principal scene is that of the baptism of Constantine. He is also shown trampling a dragon or with an angel holding a cross and olive branch.