In 258 A.D., Publius Licinius Valerianus — known to history as Valerian — had been Emperor of Rome for five years. He became perturbed that many members of the patrician and equestrian classes were fascinated by a dead Galilean carpenter whose teachings had vexed the empire for two centuries.
With Rome facing all manner of catastrophic wars, famine and — above all — the plague, Valerian knew he must act decisively to save the empire.
His answer was to take up where the vicious Emperor Decius had left off in 251 A.D. and resume the persecution of Christians.
“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 the knights, patricians and senators who have dared embrace the inhuman Christian abomination.”
Fifty years before, Tertullian — Roman attorney, Christian convert and talented apologist — loosed arrows of sarcasm from his pen to impale Romans whipped into a fury against Christians by lying orators paid off by administrative scoundrels:
“The term ‘conspiracy’ should not be applied to us but rather should label those who plot hatred against decent and worthy people, they who shout for the blood of the innocent and plead justification of their hatred the foolish excuse that Christians are to blame for every public disaster and every misfortune befalling the people.
“If the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile fails to rise and flood the fields, if the sky withholds its rain, if there is earthquake or famine or plague, straightway the howl arises: ‘The Christians to the lion!’”
“What?” laughed Tertullian scornfully, “All those Christians to one lion?”
The Roman Senate rubberstamped Valerian’s edicts and the hunt was on for bishops, priests, deacons and even the acolytes, young boys who served the clergy at Mass. They assisted in the distribution of food to the needy, helped the deacons collect and save offerings to the Church and the sick, sometimes with the Blessed Lord in 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 Pope St. Stephen. After that holy pope’s martyrdom, Tarcisius continued to serve at liturgies celebrated by the new Roman Pontiff, St. Sixtus II.
Each day, meeting in secret, in homes scattered throughout the city, Christians gathered for Mass. Afterward, deacons were sent to carry 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 the prisoners. Sixtus hesitated only momentarily. He held the boy in high regard, as had Pope Stephen before him, and the acolyte had carried the Eucharist before.
Sixtus gave Tarcisius several precious particles of the Blessed Sacrament, swaddling them in clean linen, and placing the little bundle in an arca. Tarcisius put the little wooden box into a small bag attached to a cord and put it around 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. They were his own age but not Christians. They knew Tarcisius as a playmate who had joined in their games before. The acolyte was asked to take part in their game but he begged off, mentioning that he was on an errand.
Seeing that Tarcisius had something in his hands, one of the boys asked what he was carrying.
Tarcisius attempted to leave but the boys had surrounded him. At first good-naturedly, they made a game out of trying to snatch the container from Tarcisius to play keep away, but they were unable to break his hold.
During the jostling, one of the boys pulled down the bag and recognized 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 at 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 containing the Hidden Jesus. The cord about his neck broke, but Tarcisius grasped the arca that much tighter.
The circle of boys grew smaller. Their demands grew harsher. The jostling became more threatening. Christians were enemies of Rome. 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 the lies their parents had taught them.
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!”
At once he pulled the frenzied boys off their prey, firmly elbowing them away or tossing them against each other until they littered the ground. Falling silent they slunk away.
Taking up the bleeding and mangled body of Tarcisius in his strong arms, the soldier carried him to his own home, where he washed away the blood and dirt. 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 devout and ardent flame to meet his Lord in glory.
Sylvanus carried out Tarcisius’ task then found the boy’s parents to tell them of their son’s heroism. The body of Tarcisius was carried to the catacombs named for St. Callistus where, sorrowing, the holy Pope Sixtus received it. He then celebrated the Divine Sacrifice to mark the boy’s birth in heaven, martyred by hate but alive and safe with Jesus.
In the fourth century, Pope St. Damasus I wrote a poem about this “boy-martyr of the Eucharist” and said that, much like St. Stephen, the first martyr, 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 in Rome now claims the relics of St. Tarcisius, holy acolyte and courageous protector of the Holy Eucharist. Honored as the patron saint of altar servers, he is also invoked as patron of first Communicants.
The Passion of Pope Stephen, written in the sixth century, recounts the story of Tarcisius, giving rise to veneration of the fearless acolyte.
Throughout the centuries, St. Tarcisius has been a stirring example of youthful courage and devotion. His story has been told to generations of altar boys, urging them to share a like heroism, if necessary, to protect the eucharistic Jesus.
St. Tarcisius gained a new generation of admirers in the mid-1800s when Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, archbishop of Westminster, London, made the acolyte’s story part of his novel, “Fabiola or The Church of the Catacombs.” Wiseman’s depiction of Christian life in the third century became a runaway bestseller. His touching portrayal of the young boy’s martyrdom is quite affecting.
The ancient Roman Martyrology shows the commemoration of St Tarcisius taking place on Aug. 15. Since that day is now the observance of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the commemoration of St Tarcisius is no longer found on the Universal Calendar of the Church
The following prayer can be recited by altar servers as they vest before assisting at Mass:
THE PRAYER OF AN ALTAR SERVER
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.
(Sean M. Wright, former acolyte, is part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita, CA. He replies to emails sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.)