Fr John Flader: The Eucharist’s bodyguard

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Elevation of the Eucharist is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Anthony’s Church in North Beach, Md., July 15, 2021. PHOTO: CNS/Bob Roller

Dear Father, My son is an altar server and our parish priest told the servers to pray to St Tarcisius, their patron saint, for a love of the Blessed Sacrament. What do we know about this saint?

We do not have much detailed, certain, knowledge of St Tarcisius, but it seems he died in the third century, defending the Eucharist while taking it to Christians in prison. Pope Benedict XVI gave a moving account of this saint in an address to altar servers from all over Europe in Rome on 4 August 2010. What follows is taken largely from that address.

When Emperor Valerian (253-260) was persecuting Christians, including ordering the execution of the bishops of Carthage and Rome, Christians were forced to meet secretly in private houses or underground in the catacombs to hear the word of God, pray and celebrate Holy Mass. It is said that St Tarcisius was a boy who went regularly to the catacombs of St Calixtus in Rome and took his Christian duties very seriously.

“the consecrated Host which the little martyr had defended with his life had become flesh of his flesh, thereby forming with his body a single immaculate Host offered to God.”

He had great love for the Eucharist and was presumably an acolyte, or altar server.
At that time the custom of taking the Eucharist to prisoners and the sick was very dangerous.

One day, when the priest asked who was prepared to take the Eucharist to those who were waiting for it, young Tarcisius stood up and said: “Send me!” The boy seemed too young for such a demanding service, but he argued: “My youth will be the best shield for the Eucharist”.

Convinced, the priest entrusted the Blessed Sacrament to him, 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 swine. 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 they realised he was clasping something to his chest that he appeared to be protecting.

They tried to prize it away from him, but in vain. The struggle became ever more fierce, especially when they realised that Tarcisius was a Christian. They kicked him and threw stones at him, but he did not surrender. While Tarcisius was dying, a Pretorian guard called Quadratus, who had also become a Christian, picked him up and carried him to the priest.
Tarcisius was already dead when they arrived, but he was still clutching a small linen bag containing the Eucharist.

Tarcisius was buried in the catacombs of St Calixtus. In the following century, Pope Damasus (366-384) had an inscription carved on St Tarcisius’ tomb, saying that he died in the year 257. The Roman Martyrology fixed the date as 15 August, and in the same Martyrology a beautiful oral tradition is recorded.

It claims that the Blessed Sacrament was not found on St Tarcisius’ body, either in his hands or in 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.

Pope Benedict told the altar servers that St Tarcisius’ witness 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, Jesus himself, who becomes our nourishment, support and strength on our daily journey and on the open road that leads to eternal life,” he said.

“The Eucharist is the greatest gift that Jesus has given us. Serve Jesus present in the Eucharist generously. It is an important task that enables you to be particularly close to the Lord and to grow in true and profound friendship with him. Guard this friendship in your hearts jealously, like St Tarcisius, ready to commit yourselves, to fight and to give your lives so that Jesus may reach all peoples.

“May you too communicate to your peers the gift of this friendship with joy, with enthusiasm, without fear, so that they may feel that you know this Mystery, that is true and that you love it! Every time that you approach the altar, you have the good fortune to assist in God’s great loving gesture as he continues to want to give himself to each one of us, to be close to us, to help us, to give us strength to live in the right way.”

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