Friday, December 31, 2010

St Sylvester I, Pope and Confessor

1 Peter 5:1-4, 10-11 / Matthew 16:13-19

In his collection of Sicilian folk tales, Giuseppe Pitrè includes a tale of St Sylvester. According to the tale, a king by the name of Constantine threatened to punish the saintly pope and remove him from his throne if he should not approve Constantine's desire to take a second wife. The pope, fearful of being forced to offend God for the sake of pleasing his king, flees into the woods where, in a chapel build by Jesus Christ himself, he is able to spend his days in quiet prayer. So powerful is God's love for the pontiff, that he sends leprosy upon the king, an illness so severe that no means could be found to cure it. Warned in a dream that only the prayers of Sylvester could cure him, the king sends soldiers into the woods to retrieve the pope. The holy man, however, is reluctant to accompany them: 'If my wish was to please him,' answered the pope, 'I would have done so at the beginning.'

Even so, the pope agrees to accompany the soldiers, but only after he has celebrated Mass and they have dined from plants whose seeds he has only just planted before their eyes. Unable to do otherwise, the unbelieving soldiers assist at the pope's Mass, where they witness an angel from God appear to serve, an image of the infant Lord in the Host, the appearance of his Blood in the chalice. After the Mass, they find the newly planted seeds now fully grown plants, from which they have more than enough to eat. So moved by what they have seen, the soldiers are baptized. The pope returns with these new Christians to the king, who is himself assured that he will be healed from his illness if he submits to the law of Christ and is baptized. He agrees, and is healed.

The story, of course, has no foundation in history, save that Sylvester reigned when Constantine the Great became first Augustus, then sole emperor of the West, and finally sole emperor of the Roman Empire, and that this same Constantine did not only free the Church from its persecution, but also supported and endowed it, finally receiving baptism from the Church near the end of his life. Sylvester, however, seems to be the magnet of fabulous stories, whether the fanciful one told by Pitrè or the more lastingly influential claim that Constantine had endowed the pope with temporal authority over the lands of the West.

We may be inclined to think that there is nothing we can learn from these tales. However, in this we are mistaken. Even if the events they recite are untrue, the position of Sylvester in both is clear. In both tales, Constantine tries, by threat or by gift, to move the pope to exchange his true spiritual authority for an earthly one. The deal seems attractive. After all, it would seem that more can be done to fulfill the works of the Gospel with the blessings of the state than without it.

However, Sylvester's legendary time in the woods, and indeed the best examples of those men who have sat in the See of Peter, tells us another truth. It reminds us that the Church can only do what it has been commissioned to do, can only witness with truth and power to the Word made flesh, when it does so without compromise. This means that even when the Church is to all visible evidence deprived of power, it is always retains that chapel built in the wilderness by Jesus Christ himself. Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. As Sylvester reminds the king in Pitrè's tale, How did you expect me to disobey God's commands? If I had done that, I wouldn't have been able to perform these miracles.

There is only one crown the Church should ever seek, one glory and empire, and that is the unfading crown given by our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain us even when the influence of the Church on the world seems to be feeble or even altogether absent. We hope not in the world, but in Christ. To him be glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.

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