The resurrection of Christianity: the connection between Sylvester and Constantine
Constantine as some may recall did something no ruler for hundreds of years had done for Christianity: he made it an officially recognized religion. And with that act, hundreds of years of intense persecution of Christians stopped. It was as if Christianity had risen from the grave…again. That was indeed a Christmas celebration! Chesterton makes mention of this in his “Five Deaths of the Faith” from The Everlasting Man. Who was pope during that time and who it is said, helped convert Constantine? St. Sylvester.
The first “peace-time” pope in the reign of Constantine, St. Sylvester took part in two very important negotiations: the Arian heresy and the Council of Nicaea. There were a number of legends that dramatized the work of St. Sylvester and G. K. recorded the following observation on the historical preservation of these documents and images which astonished him because they were so well preserved:
“Not the least astonishing thing about the peregrinations of books and parchments and statues and paintings is the little damage they seem to get in their wanderings. During the Dark Ages the manuscripts of classic antiquity took refuge in Ireland. Ireland became a sort of depository (so I am assured by the learned), and when you trace the history of a manuscript you continually find a period of Irish repose when it lay in that island secure from the barbarians. And, apart from this long travel over sea, manuscripts went flying from Northumberland to Apulia, from the Lusitanian monasteries to the Euphrates and back again, from Egypt to the waste lands of the Russian Marches. To-day you find them haphazard. You find the Silver Codex right up at Upsala in Sweden. You find the Legend of St. Sylvester in Rome, where St. Sylvester was bishop, but not from Rome at all, but from Syria. And Paris, and the British Museum, and New York, and all the great centres get their parchments from the wide world. Yet how neat they still look! It is natural for them to look neat when they are ‘in situ’, though it is marvelous even then how they have been preserved. It is natural, for instance, that they glorious Gospels of St. Chad should look in Lichfield as though they were written yesterday. But is is astonishing that a manuscript which has wandered all over the world in all weathers, in every kind of conveyance, should after so many centuries be preserved as in a thousand cases it has been preserved.
And so with the pictures. And the mutilated statues were not mutilated, it would seem, by travel, as a rule. When they have been found, they have been found mutilated. It is ignorance, or zeal, or accident that did it in the place to which they belonged: but not travel.” – G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 1920-1922
“Christianity remained the official religion of a Renaissance prince or the official religion of an eighteenth century bishop, just as an ancient mythology remained the official religion of Julius Caesar or the Arian creed long remained the official religion of Julian the Apostate. But there was a difference between the cases of Julius and of Julian; because the Church had begun its strange career. There was no reason why men like Julius should not worship gods like Jupiter forever in public and laugh at them forever in private. But when Julian treated Christianity as dead, he found it had come to life again. He also found, incidentally, that there was not the faintest sign of Jupiter ever coming to life again. This case of Julian and the episode of Arianism is but the first of a series of examples that can only be roughly indicated here. Arianism, as has been said, had every human appearance of being the natural way in which that particular superstition of Constantine might be expected to peter out. All the ordinary stages had been passed through; the creed had become a respectable thing, had become a ritual thing, had then been modified into a rational thing; and the rationalists were ready to dissipate the last remains of it, just as they do to-day. When Christianity rose again suddenly and threw them, it was almost as unexpected as Christ rising from the dead. But there are many other examples of the same thing, even about the same time. The rush of missionaries from Ireland, for instance, has all the air of an unexpected onslaught of young men on an old world, and even on a Church that showed signs of growing old. Some of them were martyred on the coast of Cornwall; and the chief authority on Cornish antiquities told me that he did not believe for a moment that they were martyred by heathens but (as he expressed it with some humour) `by rather slack Christians.'” – G.K.Chesterton †, The Five Deaths of The Faith, The Everlasting Man, 1925