St. Tarsicius

(Third Century)

I suppose that all children in the past few generations have been told, during their preparation for first Holy Communion, about St. Tarsicius, who died rather than hand over the Holy Eucharist to a pagan mob.

Here is the story as traditionally recounted in the Roman Martyrology, the Church’s calendar of saints for the record and for devotional reading.

“At Rome, on the Appian Way, the passion of St. Tarsicius the acolyte, whom the heathen met bearing the sacrament of the Body of Christ and asked him what it was he carried. He judged it a shameful thing to cast pearls before swine, and so was attacked by them for a long time with sticks and stones, until he gave up the ghost. When they turned over his body, the sacrilegious assailants could find no trace of Christ’s sacrament, either in his hands or among his clothing.”

Because this account calls Tarsicius an “acolyte,” many have pictured him as an altar boy, and called him the “boy martyr of the Eucharist.” Actually, an acolyte, even those early days, was not a boy mass server, but a man who belonged to one of the minor orders of the clergy.

Indeed, the whole account I have just given is based on a story written as long as three centuries after Tarsicius’ death; hence not very dependable for details. It presents the martyr as a youth entrusted with the duty of taking the Holy Eucharist to Christians imprisoned during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Valerian.

The earliest and most dependable account of the saint is the inscription in his honor placed by Pope St. Damasus (366-384 AD) in the Roman catacomb of St. Calixtus, in which Tarsicius was buried. In this inscription Damasus compares two martyrs, the deacon St. Stephen, who was stoned to death in Jerusalem, and Tarsicius, who was killed by a pagan mob in Rome. Here is what he says of Tarsicius: “When a raving gang demanded that holy Tarsicius, who was carrying the Sacrament of Christ, show it to their profane eyes, he chose to be beaten to death rather than hand over to mad dogs the sacred Body.”

Since Pope St. Damasus, in this handsomely carved tribute, compares the martyr to St. Stephen the Deacon, it seems more likely that Tarsicius was a deacon rather than an acolyte. Roman deacons had the duty of carrying a portion of the sacred Host from the pope’s Mass to Masses being celebrated in other churches, so that it could be put into the chalices there, thus symbolizing the unity of all other Masses with that of the bishop of Rome.

But whether Tarsicius was bearing the Eucharist to another church or to the imprisoned faithful, he is obviously the perfect patron saint of all eucharistic ministers who are not priests. Throughout the history of the Church, non-priests among the clergy, nuns, and lay people, have been permitted to carry and administer the Blessed Sacrament in times of need. Since Vatican II, particularly because of the decline in the number of priests and other ordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the Holy See has allowed lay persons to perform certain rites, including the role of Eucharistic ministers to the sick, etc.

To be selected for this duty is a privilege and a high honor. It demands great and humble reverence on the part of the delegated ministers towards the sacred Body and Blood. What better saint can such ministers turn to, then, for aid in their task, than St. Tarsicius, who preferred to die rather than suffer the Holy Eucharist to be subjected to the least disrespect?

--Father Robert F. McNamara