Today is the commemoration of St. Sylvester I, who was Bishop of Rome (Pope) from AD 314-335. He was the leader of the Roman Church community at a very dramatic time: Constantine the Great had embraced Christianity. The persecutions were over. The Church was allowed to come out from the catacombs and flourish. It all seemed very much like a miracle.
Sylvester had to guide the Church through a rapid and dizzying transition. In addition to dealing with the overwhelmingly powerful Constantine, he was also occupied with keeping the witness of the Church whole and truly “catholic” in an era of burgeoning heresies.
But perhaps his biggest challenge was success. The Church was legal, it was favored, it was being promoted. Success was, and always will be, a very dangerous time for Christians. To use Blake’s quote: “The strongest poison ever known / Came from Caesar's laurel crown.” The challenge was to use the opportunity, the peace, the forum wisely and to God’s glory. This challenge remains for the Church today, in whatever place it is found--persecuted or not. That is something to think about as we end one year and look towards another. Will we rely on success, reaching for money, power, position—and the opportunity to settle scores—rather than on the humility of the Gospel? Will we rely on the Holy Spirit, or will we “break the glass” and reach for what promises, in the short run, what only God can truly give the Christian disciple?
We actually know very little about St. Sylvester (though much was made up about him later), even though he was such a pivotal figure. In a way, though, I rather like this. It allows us to ask the above questions without having lots of answers… and to look into the mirror of faith and give what we see some honest scrutiny.
The Collect for St. Sylvester
O God, our Heavenly Father, who raised up your faithful servant Sylvester to be a bishop and pastor in your Church and to feed your flock: Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that they may minister in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.