Life and Soul

Saint of the week: St Sylvester (December 31)

Pope from 314 to 335, Sylvester was one of the most influential pontiffs of the period. Although little is known of his background, he is thought to have been the son of a Roman called Rufinus.

Coming to power in the same year as Emperor Constantine proclaimed toleration for Christianity, he went on to found some of the great churches of Rome, including the Basilica of St John Lateran and Old St Peter’s Basilica, as well as several other churches built over the graves of the city’s martyrs.

This was a very important time for Christianity, and in 325 the First Council of Nicaea established much of what we now consider mainstream Christianity, including the Creed; although he did not attend the council.

After his death his relationship with Constantine, who was never especially Christian even after he had adopted God for military purposes, became a source of a form of ancient fan fiction.

The Symmachean forgeries from the 6th century have a story about Constantine being cured of leprosy by the pope, after which the grateful emperor made the Bishop of Rome supreme primate. Although no one has ever suggested this really happened, it was during this time that Rome asserted a spiritual rule over the rest of Christendom as it held increasing political power.

The saint’s legacy faded, although in German-speaking countries the last day of the year continued be known as Silvester, and in Brazil the St Silvester Road Race is held every year.