Saint Sylvester was traditionally said to be the son of Justa and Rufinus. He was born in Rome around the year 285 AD and died there on 31 December 355.
He was ordained a priest before the beginning of the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian. Due to the persecutions and the leprosy rampant in Rome, he temporarily withdrew into a cave on Monte Soratte. On the summit of this mountain he built a church, which grew into a monastery dedicated to him.
His duties as Roman bishop began 314. A year earlier, the Roman emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius had recognized the Christian Church and, in the Edict of Milan, granted every citizen of the empire the right to freely practice their religion.
Saint Sylvester in the Scala Santa (Rome)
The baptism of Constantine in Santi Quattro Coronati (Rome)
The legends, most of which originated in the 5th century, tell of Sylvester’s steadfastness during the persecutions. Saint Silvester warned the governor, who tried to force him to hand over the Christian possessions he was holding, until he choked on a fishbone while eating.
The Sylvester legend is particularly well known. According to it, Emperor Constantine, afflicted with leprosy, was supposed to bathe in the blood of children to be healed. However, the mothers could change the emperor’s mind.
While the emperor slept in the infirmary, the apostle lords Peter and Paul appeared to him. They advised him to call Pope Sylvester. The emperor sent three messengers, who looked for Pope Sylvester and finally found him.
Sylvester showed the emperor representations of the apostle lords, which Constantine recognized and was then baptized. Pope Sylvester then received the tiara from Emperor Constantine, who was healed by baptism. In addition, Constantine personally led Sylvester’s horse through Rome.
On the occasion of his legendary baptism by Saint Sylvester, Constantine allegedly made extensive donations to the Church, including the entire world.
This Constantine donation never happened, already in the 15th century the deed was exposed as a forgery, but nevertheless the Vatican insisted until the 20th century that the donation – although without a deed – had been made, thus establishing its supremacy in Christendom and territorial claims.
Of course, Saint Sylvester has performed a number of miracles. The legends also tell of a dispute that took place between Sylvester and twelve Jewish rabbis because Helen wanted to convert her son Constantine, who had been baptized in the meantime, to Judaism.
Saint Sylvester triumphed in the dispute against eleven of the learned Jews; the twelfth, Zambri, killed a bull by mentioning the name of God, which the bull could not bear to prove the power of his faith. However, Sylvester, with God’s help, could even raise the dead bull to life, whereupon Zambri, like the other rabbis and Helen, were immediately baptized. In addition, Sylvester converted heathen priests by defeating a dragon.
Saint Sylvester is the patron saint of pets. His assistance is requested for a good fodder harvest and a happy new year. His name means “the forest man” (from Latin silva “forest”). His commemoration day is 31 December.