August 15, 2015

Saint Tarcisius the Acolyte

You who read this, whoever you are, learn the equal merit of the two men to whom the rector Damasus gave titles after their deserving actions. The Jewish people had struck down with stones Stephen who was advising better things, he who had taken a trophy from the enemy, this faithful levite was the first one to take up martyrdom. When an insane gang pressed saintly Tarcisius, who was carrying the sacraments of Christ, to divulge them to the profane, he preferred to be killed and give up his life rather than betray to rabid dogs the heavenly body.

The only positive information concerning the Roman martyr Saint Tarcisius is found in this poem composed in his honor by Pope Damasus (366–384), who compares him to the deacon Saint Stephen and says that, as Stephen was stoned by a crowd, so Tarcisius, carrying the Divine Eucharist, was attacked by a group and beaten to death.

Nothing else definite is known concerning Tarcisius. Since Damasus compares him to Stephen, he may have been a deacon; however, a 6th-century account makes him an acolyte. It is estimated that Tarcisius was a youth during one of the fierce 3rd-century Roman persecutions, probably during the reign of Emperor Valerian (253–259). One day, he was entrusted with the task of bringing the Eucharist to condemned Christians in prison. He preferred death at the hands of a mob rather than deliver to them the Divine Mysteries, which he was carrying.

He was originally buried in the Catacombs of San Callisto and the inscription by Damasus was placed later on his tomb. Some time later his relics were moved to the San Silvestro in Capite church in Rome. His feast day is celebrated on August 15th; that day is widely observed as the Feast of the Dormition, therefore he is not mentioned in the General Church Calendar, but only in the Roman Martyrology.

His story became well known when Cardinal Wiseman made it a part of his novel Fabiola, in which the story of the young acolyte is dramatized and a very moving account is given of his martyrdom and death.

Tarcisius, one of the patron saints of altar boys, 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 like heroism in suffering for their faith. In the Passion of Pope Stephen, written in the sixth century, Tarcisius is said to be an acolyte of the pope himself and, if so, this explains the great veneration in which he was held and the reason why he was chosen for so difficult a mission.

Today, in the Church of the Holy Unmercenaries in Karavas, there is a celebration in honor of Saint Tarcisius on the first Saturday after the feast of the Presentation of Christ (Feb. 2), by the youth of the Metropolis of Piraeus.

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
With divine eros, you were filled, the honorable gifts, you carried with you, for this you were forcefully put to death, and did not betray the Lord to the lawless, showing yourself to be a boast of the martyrs, O Tarcisius, the offspring of Rome, and joy of young Christian children, intercede with Christ God, to save our souls.