Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Saint of the Week: St. Tarcisius
Our Saint of the Week this week, in celebration of the diocesan Year of the Eucharist, is the first child to be featured in this Saint of the Week series: Saint Tarcisius.
He was a twelve-year-old acolyte (that is, an officially-installed altar server, installed and consecrated, as it were, by a bishop) in one of the Roman persecutions of the 3
century – likely during the reign of the Emperor Valerian. In those first three centuries of Christianity before Christianity at last was legalized by the Emperor Constantine and his Edict of Milan, Christians worshipped in secret in the catacombs outside the city walls, celebrating Mass on the tombs of the martyrs. Each day, a deacon would be sent from the catacombs after Mass to the prisons in order to bring the Eucharist to those Christians who were condemned to die. One day, however, there was no deacon to send, and so it was that Saint Tarcisius, being an acolyte, was sent to carry the “Holy Mysteries” to the prisoners.
On the way, he was stopped by boys his own age who were not Christians but who knew him as a playmate and lover of games. He was asked to join their games, and normally he would have joined them, but on that particular occasion, he declined. He was carrying the Eucharist, after all. At that, the crowd of boys noticed that he was carrying something. In that same moment, he was somehow recognized as a Christian, and the group of boys, eager to see the Christian “Mysteries,” became a mob and turned upon Saint Tarcisius with fury. He went down under the blows, and it is believed that a fellow Christian drove off the mob and rescued the young acolyte.
The mangled body of Saint Tarcisius was carried back to the catacombs, but the boy died on the way from his injuries. He was buried in the cemetery of Saint Callistus.
In the 4
Century, Pope Saint Damasus wrote a poem about this “boy-martyr of the Eucharist” and said that, like another Saint Stephen, he chose to suffer a brutal death at the cruelty of a mob rather than give up the Sacred Body to “raging dogs.” In later years, the story of Saint Tarcisius became even more popular when in 19
-Century England, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman made it a part of his novel
, in which the story of the young acolyte is dramatized and a very moving account given of his martyrdom and death.
Saint Tarcisius, a patron saint of altar servers, has always been an example of youthful courage and devotion, and his story was one that was told again and again to urge others to a similar heroism in suffering for their faith. In the
Passion of Pope Stephen
, written in the 6
Century, Saint Tarcisius is said to be an acolyte of the pope himself, and if so, that would explains the great veneration in which he was held and the reason why he was chosen for so difficult a mission.
A great lesson from the life and martyrdom of Saint Tarcisius: children, too, can become saints, and youth is no barrier to holiness. The universal call to holiness begins at Baptism, and we do not have to wait for old age and gray hair to serve God. Youthful saints tell us something about sanctity, and their example is especially luminous as they dedicate their young lives to God.
Saint Tarcisius…pray for us.
~ Fr. Lewis
on Saturday, August 22 at 2:00PM