New Year’s Eve is not a Church holiday, but while we gather to reflect on the passing of 2016 and to greet the coming of 2017, it is not a bad time to reflect on the pontificate of St. Sylvester on his feast day. Just as we hope each new year will bring positive change, so also Pope St. Sylvester presided over what seemed like an incredibly positive change in his day: the beginning of a new era for Christianity. Sylvester was the first pope elected after the Edict of Milan granted legal status to Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Sylvester had lived through the Great Persecution under Diocletian (303-11). While many Christians had suffered sporadic persecutions before, this was the first and only empire-wide, systematic genocide directed against Christianity by imperial edict. We are not told how Sylvester survived the purge, but we can imagine that because he was a presbyter during the persecution, and because clergy were a special target of the emperor’s wrath, it was a particularly difficult time for him to exercise his vocation to shepherd the flock of Christ. What hardships he braved and how often he saw his people either apostatize or be killed, we cannot know — but a true pastor’s heart breaks for either result.
With the accession of Constantine and his influence on behalf of Christians, the Great Persecution ended in 313, and all property confiscated from Christians was restored. In some cases reparations were paid. Whatever the presbyter Sylvester had done during the persecution was laudable enough that, when the Pope died early in 314, the Roman church quickly elected him to shepherd its transition into this new age of cultural legitimacy. Sylvester was to be the first legitimate, public face of Roman Christianity.
His tasks were daunting. Despite Constantine’s favor, Christianity had to repair its reputation. It had been widely considered a superstition, which the Romans defined as any secretive cult — potentially destabilizing society, tending to make its adherents insane, and (what was a crime above all other crimes for tradition-loving Romans) new. Sylvester had to engage not only in apologetics but in public relations to help Christianity fit within Roman culture. To bring Christianity out of the shadows and into the public square, three huge churches were built in Rome with funding from Constantine. Christian worship had to be opened to the public, and overt Christians began functioning in public office.
Reconciliation was vital to Sylvester’s ministry, as well. Some Christians had defied their persecutors and been sent to prison or scheduled for death. Upon their release, they were venerated as confessors. Others, however, had given in and apostatized, with some of them even delivering the holy books and other Christians into the hands of pagan authorities. There was heated debate about whether to offer these traitors and cowards forgiveness and reconciliation to the Church. Donatus, for whom the Donatists of North Africa were named, began his controversial episcopate during this time. Sylvester had to try to heal these deep rifts among Christians by both reclaiming the power of Christ’s forgiveness on the one hand and maintaining the integrity of church discipline on the other.
And the Great Persecution had not suppressed heresy. Creative theologians such as the arch-heretic Arius thrived in the years before the persecution; controversy surfaced quickly once the pressure was lifted. Sylvester’s church was deeply divided about the nature of the Son of God (among other controversies), to the point that Constantine considered their disagreements a destabilizing force throughout his whole empire. He called the Council of Nicea in 325 to bring badly needed unity. By that time Sylvester was too old to attend the Council: he sent two legates to speak for him, and he supported the orthodox position.
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Sylvester’s church was in transition. To navigate the transition, he helped the church make an ally of the civil government in the person of Constantine. The alliance forged by Sylvester and Constantine would become the model for church-state relations in both West and East for more than 13 centuries. Whether this so-called Constantinian shift was a bad thing or a good thing is a matter of debate among contemporary Christian ethicists and historians, with Stanley Hauerwas asserting the former and Peter Leithart the latter.
Regardless of which view wins our day, Sylvester stands as an example to the Church in 2016 and 2017. We still have issues about our public presentation and relationship to various governments. We still struggle with reconciliation, especially among different races. And we still divide ourselves over fundamental theological disagreements. Perhaps our New Year’s resolution, as a church, ought not to be to solve these problems too quickly. If Sylvester teaches us anything, it is that transition is messy and complex, and what seems like a solution ready-at-hand may have unintended long-term consequences. Perhaps instead our resolution ought to be simple faithfulness in whatever context we find ourselves — and a trust in God to be our guide through this and every new year.