A couple of months back I was at a Dominican priory at St. Dominic’s Basilica in Bologna, and happened to get introduced to an English-speaking priest. He was a very old Italian priest, but his English was very good. He took me and some friends though the halls past the sacristy and showed us the cell of St. Dominic and we learned all about the history of the church and the relics that were displayed before us, including the papal bull of Honorius II authorizing the founding of the Dominican Order.
It was exquisite and I had to thank the priest, but I failed to remember if he told us his name or not.
“Father, what did you say your name was?”
“I'm not a priest—”
And he went on, “I am brother [broken sounds]”
I leaned in to hear better how he said his name: “Tarcisio” (sounding like tar-CHEE-zio)
In the fractions of a second I was oddly confused, thinking “this is not an Italian name I'm familiar with.”
Then, “OH!—” I Catholic-nerded out a little bit: “Tarcisius!”
Turning to the guys that are with me, they looked a little confused.
“Do you guys know the story of St. Tarcisius?”
“Does anyone want to hear it?”
They all nodded.
And so, I would like to share a story of persecution from the primitive Church with you, dear reader.
When the emperor Valerian ordered the execution of bishops, priests and deacons, Christians attended Mass in basements and the catacombs outside the city walls. Deacons were the custodians of the Faith, and one of their principal duties was to deliver Communion to Christians for whom getting to Mass was too dangerous. It was a dangerous job, to say the least.
On one such occasion, no deacon was available. The priest did not know what he would do until an altar boy, a young Roman servant of 11 years old named Tarcisius, stepped forward after Mass and said that he would carry Communion to some Christians waiting inside the city walls.
The priest admired Tarcisius for his grit, gave him the Sacred Hosts wrapped in silk along with a blessing, and sent him quickly toward the city.
All was going well until Tarcisius ran into some pagan boys his age who asked him to come and join their game. Tarcisius thanked them, explained he had an errand to run, but said he would join them later.
“Oh! Christian boy.” One of the pagan boys sneered. “Is it that you think you are too good to play with us?” They encircled Tarcisius.
“Not at all,” said Tarcisius. “I have something to deliver and must be on my way.”
“Well, then show us what it is! What is the big secret, Christian boy?”
“It is no business of yours,” said Tarcisius, looking each of the boys squarely in the eye. “Now step aside and make way.”
Rather than step aside, the pagan boys closed their circle around Tarcisius, and as they did, they picked up heavy sticks and rocks from the ground. One of them shouted, “I bet he’s carrying the Christian Mysteries!”
“Are you, Christian boy?” demanded another. “Show us!”
Tarcisius, clutching his precious cargo to his chest, dashed what looked like an opening in the circle, but he was not quick enough. The mob of boys closed in around him, and they began to club him with stones and heavy sticks. Tarcisius did not cry out but quietly prayed, ever clutching the Blessed Sacrament to his chest.
The pagan boys beat him to death.
With bloodies hands, they seized the bruised and broken body of Tarcisius and tried to twist the silk cloth carrying the Eucharist out of his dead arms. Although he had no life left in him, Tarcisius would not let go of our Lord in his arms and hands. The boys tried to pry his arms open, but they each failed. In a fit of grief, they left Tarcisius’ body by the side of the road for the vultures to eat.
After a time, some Christians went looking for Tarcisius, and when they found his broken and bloodied corpse still clinging to the Blessed Sacrament, they guessed what had happened.
Carefully lifting the small boy’s body, they gently bore it back to the priest, who by now had grown deeply concerned about his young altar boy. Christians set the boy’s body at the foot of the priest, who knelt down and quietly brushed the servant’s hair, matted with blood, away from his face and with his thumb made the sign of the cross on his forehead. At that moment, Tarcisius’ arms unfolded and released the Blessed Sacrament to the priest. This holy Christian boy who had held Jesus in his arms for a time was now being held in the arms of Jesus for all time.
The young boy Tarcisius’ was canonized, and his feast day is Aug. 15. He is the patron saint of altar servers.