St. Tarcisius, guardian of the Blessed Sacrament and patron of altar servers

"The Martyrdom of St. Tarcisius," by Achille-Eugène Godefroy. (Wikimedia Commons)

In A.D. 258, Publius Licinius Valerianus, known to history as Valerian, had been emperor for five years. Rome was facing all manner of catastrophic wars, famine and, above all, the plague. Valerian knew he must act decisively to save the empire. His answer?

Round up the Christians.

Members of the patrician and equestrian classes had become fascinated by a Galilean Carpenter whose teachings had vexed the empire for two centuries. Perturbed, Valerian took up where the vicious Emperor Decius had left off in 251.

“Rid the Empire of them!” He thundered, “If they don’t give up their superstition, send them to the arena as a spectacle and a warning for knights, patricians and senators who have dared embrace the inhuman Christian abomination.”

The Senate rubberstamped Valerian’s edicts and the hunt was on. Bishops, priests and deacons were targeted. Even acolytes, young boys who served the clergy at Mass, had to take care. They also helped the deacons collect and save offerings of food and money given the Church for the sick and destitute, and assisted in the distribution of food to the needy. Indeed, these boys sometimes carried the Blessed Lord as Holy Viaticum. They were the original extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

Here’s where we pick up the story of Tarcisius, a 12-year-old acolyte who served Mass for St. Stephen, bishop of Rome. After that holy pope’s martyrdom, Tarcisius continued to serve at liturgies celebrated by the next Roman Pontiff, St. Sixtus II.

Each day, meeting secretly in homes scattered throughout the city, Christians gathered for Mass, partaking of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Afterward, deacons carried portions of the Blessed Eucharist to Christians homebound and imprisoned.

On a day when no deacon was at hand, Tarcisius volunteered to carry the "Holy Mysteries" to the sick and to prisoners. Sixtus hesitated only momentarily. He held the boy in high regard, as had Pope Stephen before him.

Sixtus swaddled several precious particles of the wondrous Sacrament in clean, white linen and placed the bundle into a small container called an arca, presenting it to the boy. Tarcisius put the little wooden box into a small leather bag attached to a cord and hung it about his neck. Clutching the little bundle with both hands, he sped off.

On the way, the lad was stopped by other boys at play on a grassy knoll. None were Christians, but they knew Tarcisius as a playmate. The acolyte was asked to join them, but he begged off, explaining that he was on an errand.

Seeing that Tarcisius had something in his hands, one of the boys asked what he was carrying. Tarcisius ignored the question and attempted to leave, but the others had surrounded him. At first good-naturedly, they kidded him, making a game out of trying to snatch the bag from Tarcisius to play keep away, but they were unable to break his hold.

During the jostling, one of the boys pulled down the side of the bag and saw the outline of a fish etched into the lid of the little chest. Immediately he recognized it as a Christian symbol and cried out, “Tarcisius is a Christian! Tarcisius is a Christian!”

The gang of boys now became even more anxious to seize the arca from the acolyte so they could gaze on one of the secret Christian amulets their parents had warned them against.

Tarcisius pushed and shoved his tormentors away, trying to escape. They tried to pull the container from his hands, but the boy refused to release his grip on the little chest. The cord about his neck broke, but Tarcisius grasped the bag that much tighter.

The circle of boys grew denser. Their demands grew harsher. The jostling became more threatening. Christians were enemies of Rome. Within minutes, the hilarity of the game gave way to demonic fury. The boys started punching and jabbing Tarcisius, each blow delivered harder than the last, fueled by lies taught them by misinformed parents and malicious instructors.

Tarcisius threw himself against the boys, but their line held and he fell. The youngsters piled on top of him, rolling him over to grab his precious burden, but still the acolyte’s fingers were laced together and his hands could not be pried away. Struggling to rise, he was butted and fell, blows raining down on him all the harder. The boys began to kick him. In his face, in his stomach; at his back and legs they kicked and beat him.

Drawn by the angry shrieks, a soldier on duty policing the city, Sylvanus Dexter, himself a Christian, happened upon the scene. A strapping young man of great strength, he waded into the melee, “Stop, Cowards!” he yelled bitterly. “Leave off!” he cried as he pulled the frenzied boys off their prey, firmly elbowing them away or tossing them against each other until they littered the ground in heaps. Falling silent they slunk away.

Taking up the bleeding and mangled body of Tarcisius in his strong arms, Sylvanus carried him to his own home, where he washed away the blood and dirt. And even unconscious, the boy refused to loose his grip.

Coming to himself, Tarcisius recognized Sylvanus. At last the young guardian of the Sacred Host released his hold. “I had to protect the Blessed Jesus,” he gasped to Sylvanus. "Take Him to those who need Him.” The boy’s eyes closed a final time, and the heroic soul of Tarcisius leapt forth in ardent flame to meet his Lord in glory.

Sylvanus carried out Tarcisius’ task, then found the boy’s parents, informing them of their son’s heroism. The body of Tarcisius was carried to the catacombs named for St. Callistus where the sorrowing Pope Sixtus received it. He then celebrated the Divine Sacrifice to mark the boy’s birth in heaven, martyred by hate but now safe with Jesus.

In the fourth century, Pope St. Damasus I wrote a poem about this "boy-martyr of the Eucharist" and says that, much like St. Stephen the first martyr, the blessed Tarcisius suffered a violent death at the hands of a mob. Rather than give up the Sacred Body of Christ to "raging dogs," wrote Damasus, St. Tarcisius valiantly gave his life to prevent certain profanation.

The church of San Silvestro in Capite, Italy, now claims the relics of St. Tarcisius, holy acolyte, and courageous protector of the Sacramental Jesus. The Passion of Pope Stephen, written in the sixth century, recounts the boy’s story, giving rise to veneration of the fearless acolyte. He is honored as the patron saint of altar servers, as well as invoked as patron of First Communicants.

St. Tarcisius gained a new generation of admirers in the mid-1800s, when Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman made the acolyte’s story part of his popular novel, Fabiola, or The Church of the Catacombs, Cardinal Wiseman’s depiction of Christian life in the third century. His touching portrayal of the young boy’s martyrdom is quite affecting.

Throughout the centuries, St. Tarcisius has been seen as a stirring example of youthful courage and holy devotion. Acolytes and children receiving their first Holy Communion have long been urged to share the same heroism, if necessary, to protect the Eucharistic Jesus.

Although the commemoration of St. Tarcisius occurs on Aug. 15, and is thereby overshadowed by the observance of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, his tale of heroism and his love for Jesus will be always remembered.

Sean M. Wright, former acolyte, is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated television writer. A member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita, California, he replies to comments sent him at [email protected].

An Altar Server's Prayer

O God, You have graciously called me to service at Your altar. Grant me every grace necessary to serve You faithfully, reverently and wholeheartedly.

Grant, too, that I may always keep in mind the example of St. Tarcisius, who died protecting the Most Holy Eucharist, and walk the same path that led him to Heaven.

St. Tarcisius, heroic acolyte and martyr, pray for me and for all who serve at the holy altar of God.


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