Saint of the Day – 15 August – St Tarcisius (3rd century) Martyr of the Eucharist – Patronages – Altarboys, First Holy Communicants.
Here is Pope Benedict’s story of St Tarcisius from his Homily at the General Audience for the International Pilgrimage of Altar Servers on 4 August 2010
“How many of you there are! While flying over St Peter’s Square in the helicopter I saw all the colours and the joy filling this Square! Thus not only do you create a festive atmosphere in the Square but you also fill my heart with joy! Thank you! The statue of St Tarcisius has come to us after a long pilgrimage. In September 2008 it was unveiled in Switzerland in the presence of 8000 altar servers, some of you were certainly present. From Switzerland it travelled through Luxembourg on the way to Hungary. Let us greet it festively today, glad at being able to become better acquainted with this figure of the early Church. Later, as Bishop Gächter told us, the statue will be taken to the Catacombs of St Calixtus, where St Tarcius was buried. The hope that I express to all is that this place, namely the Catacombs of St Calixtus and this statue, may become a reference point for altar servers, boys and girls, and for all who wish to follow Jesus more closely through the priestly, religious or missionary life. May they all be able to look at this strong and courageous boy and renew their commitment to friendship with the Lord, to learn to live with Him always, following the path He points out to us with His word and the witness of so many Saints and Martyrs whose brothers and sisters we have become through Baptism.
Who was St Tarcisius? We do not have much information about him. We are dealing with the early centuries of the Church’s history or, to be more precise, with the third century.
It is said that he was a boy who came regularly to the Catacombs of St Calixtus here in Rome and took his special Christian duties very seriously. He had great love for the Eucharist and various hints lead us to conclude that he was presumably an acolyte, that is, an altar server.
Those were years in which the Emperor Valerian was harshly persecuting Christians who were forced to meet secretly in private houses or, at times, also in the Catacombs, to hear the word of God, to pray and to celebrate Holy Mass. Even the custom of taking the Eucharist to prisoners and the sick became increasingly dangerous. One day, when, as was his habit, the priest asked who was prepared to take the Eucharist to the other brothers and sisters who were waiting for it, young Tarcisius stood up and said: “send me!”. This boy seemed too young for such a demanding service! “My youth”, Tarcisius said, “will be the best shield for the Eucharist”. Convinced, the priest entrusted to him the precious Bread, saying: “Tarcisius, remember that a heavenly treasure has been entrusted to your weak hands. Avoid crowded streets and do not forget that holy things must never be thrown to dogs nor pearls to pigs. Will you guard the Sacred Mysteries faithfully and safely?”. “I would die”, Tarcisio answered with determination, “rather than let go of them”.
As he went on his way he met some friends who approached him and asked him to join them. As pagans they became suspicious and insistent at his refusal and realised he was clasping something to his breast that he appeared to be protecting. They tried to prize it away from him but in vain. The struggle became ever fiercer, especially when they realised that Tarcisius was a Christian. They kicked him, they threw stones at him but he did not surrender. While Tarcisius was dying a Pretorian guard called Quadratus, who had also, secretly, become a Christian, carried him to the priest. Tarcisius was already dead when they arrived but was still clutching to his breast a small linen bag containing the Eucharist. He was buried straight away in the Catacombs of St Calixtus.
Pope Damasus had an inscription carved on St Tarcisius’ grave, it says that the boy died in 257. The Roman Martyrology fixed the date as 15 August and in the same Martyrology a beautiful oral tradition is also recorded. It claims that the Most Blessed Sacrament was not found on St Tarcisius’ body, either in his hands or his clothing. It explains that the consecrated Host which the little Martyr had defended with his life, had become flesh of his flesh thereby forming, together with his body, a single immaculate Host offered to God.
Dear altar servers, St Tarcisius’ testimony and this beautiful tradition teach us the deep love and great veneration that we must have for the Eucharist: it is a precious good, a treasure of incomparable value, it is the Bread of life, it is Jesus Himself who becomes our nourishment, support and strength on our daily journey and on the open road that leads to eternal life. The Eucharist is the greatest gift that Jesus bequeathed to us.”