Help your people, Lord, who are supported by the prayers of St Silvester. Under your guidance let our voyage through this life come safely into harbour at the end. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen
Roman Breviary (1973)
Concluding prayer for the feast of St Silvester, 31 December
NO ONE cares much about St Silvester these days, although in Italy, New Year’s Eve is still called la notte di San Silvestro. Elsewhere, he seems to have died both a cultural and a liturgical death, the latter because the feast is eclipsed by the Octave of Christmas. St Silvester is celebrated only in churches dedicated to him — and there cannot be many of those. Yet St Silvester was once important, because he was, traditionally, the Pope who baptised Constantine, and the first Bishop of Rome to preside over a Church not threatened with persecution.
This under-used prayer is a good one. I like the idea of God’s people being “supported by the prayers of St Silvester”. God’s people are a fragile bunch, and they may well feel particularly fragile on the last day of the year, when, instead of joining in the forced jollity of New Year’s Eve, they might prefer to retire to bed at a sensible hour with a cup of cocoa and a couple of paracetamol.
We need support, and the Pope who first led the people of God into an era of peace, with all the challenges that that must have brought with it, seems a good heavenly candidate to help us now — people who have not too little, but, on the whole, too much.
The prayer is also offered on behalf of God’s people, which is surely a wider category than the Church. The phrase “your people, Lord” summons up an image of a large and disparate flock who have but one thing in common — they are the Lord’s.
They are not the Lord’s because they are thinking of him and following him, although some may be; they are the Lord’s because the Lord is thinking of them and following them. It is not our choice that made us his; it is his choice that bound us to him. God’s love always comes before any decision we might make about God.
And it is a good thing that what makes us God’s is his will, fixed on us in everlasting love, because our wills are weak. St Silvester was a pastor — there is a very sympathetic portrait of him in Evelyn Waugh’s historical novel Helena — and he must have known just how weak some people can be.
On the last day of December, when perhaps we look back on the past year with something less than complete satisfaction, we do not need “tough love”: we need kindness and comfort.
At the end of the year, we may also, as we grow older, wonder how many more such years lie ahead. There is, after all, from a personal point of view, only a finite number of them. The final sentence has a lovely cadence to it: “Under your guidance let our voyage through this life come safely into harbour at the end.”
We all hope and pray that the end of life will be easy, and that we will slip into our destined harbour without fuss. St Silvester is always portrayed as an old man, serene and beautiful in his episcopal vestments, a reassuring image that old age, under the guidance of God, does not have to be a shipwreck. Whatever mistakes we make, whatever diversions on the way, let there be safe anchorage at last.
Waugh has a touching picture of Silvester and Helena, two elderly saints, enjoying silent companionship amid the hurly-burly of ancient Rome. May it be so for us, too.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest working in parochial ministry in West Sussex.