Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Real St Tarsicius

On August 15, the Roman Martyrology notes the death of a Saint called Tarsicius, whose name is often incorrectly given elsewhere as Tarcisius. Because of its perpetual concurrence with the Assumption, in those few places where it is celebrated, his feast would be kept today or tomorrow.

An altar dedicated to St Tarsicius in the basilica of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples. Photo courtesy of Orbis Catholicus.
The notice reads as follows. “At Rome, on the Appian Way, the holy acolyte Tarsicius, whom the pagans found bearing the Sacraments of the Body of Christ, and began to ask him what he was carrying. But he, judging it unworthy to bring forth (prodere - also ‘betray’) pearls before swine, was beaten by them with sticks and stones until he gave up the ghost, and when they sacrilegiously searched his body, they found no trace of the Sacraments of Christ either in his hands or among his clothes. But the Christians gathered up the body of the Martyr, and buried it honorably in the cemetery of Callistus.”

This entry is mostly consonant with what little we know for certain about the Saint. The statement that his death happened on the Appian Way is an inference from the place of his burial, the cemetery of Callixtus, which is located on that street. When a group of scholars led by Card. Baronius were revising the Martyrology in the mid-16th century, they apparently just assumed that Tarsicius was brought to the Christian cemetery nearest to the place of his death. But the cemetery of Callixtus was a public facility of the Church, and a great many clerics were buried there, including nine Popes. It is possible that the martyrdom really took place somewhere else.
The statement that he was an “acolyte” comes from a later recension of the Acts of Pope St Stephen I (254-7), and gave rise to the legend that he was a boy of twelve. Since the distribution of the Sacrament outside the Mass was normally done by deacons, it was then assumed that this duty would not have been given to an acolyte, and such a young one, unless there were no deacon available. It was therefore assumed that this must have been because of the ferocity of the Roman persecution, which did in fact concentrate its efforts on the clergy, especially in Rome itself. And thus, the English version of the Martyrology incorporated into the Marquess of Bute’s Roman Breviary in English adds the words “under the Emperors Valerian and Gallienus”, the instigators of the persecution of 257-8. From all of this, Tarsicius is often called something like “the boy martyr of the Eucharist”, and the revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints notes that “(t)he great increase of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in recent times has brought about a corresponding increase of the cultus of St Tarsicius.”
The Martyrdom of St Tarsicius. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Siparhasard; CC BY-SA 4.0. Formerly in a private collection, artist and date not given.
In point of fact, our only reliable source of information about Tarsicius is an inscription placed over his tomb by Pope St Damasus I (366-84), who is particularly notable for his efforts to foster devotion to the martyrs, and whom the Church now honors as the patron Saint of archeologists. In one of his other inscriptions, Damasus tells the story of the martyrdom of Ss Marcellinus the priest and Peter the exorcist, during the persecution of Diocletian. (Their feast is kept on June 2, and they are named in the Nobis quoque of the Roman Mass.) This inscription ends with Damasus saying that he got his information by interviewing the man who executed them. In his inscription on the tomb of St Hippolytus, he says that he could not vouch for the details of the story of his martyrdom. So we know that Damasus was careful to give the best information he could, and not to elaborate with fictitious hagiographic details.
Pope Damasus’ inscription for the tomb of St Agnes.
Three of Damasus’ nine lines about Tarsicius compare him to St Stephen the First Martyr, which strongly suggests (without explicitly saying) that he was, in fact, a deacon like Stephen, rather than an acolyte. The inscription gives no hint of his age, nor of when he died; it may very well have been during one of the great persecutions, but the martyrdom may just as well have been an isolated incident during one of the various lulls in persecution. (The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on him says, without justification, “It is evident that the death of this martyr occurred in one of the persecutions that took place between the middle of the third century and the beginning of the fourth.” It is not; that is perfectly possible, but unproved, and unprovable.) Nor does the inscription say that the Sacrament disappeared when the pagans looked for it within his clothes.
I thought to write this because of a recent article which perpetuates the bad habit (deeply ingrained into the post-Conciliar liturgical reform, and widely diffused throughout the Church in general) of misusing and misrepresenting the history of the ancient Church in a highly selective manner to justify bad things that happen in the modern Church. This article say that Tarsicius “was a twelve-year old boy taking Communion to prisoners”, since “there was no deacon available”, and that “(t)he hosts (which he was carrying) were carefully wrapped in linen cloth and placed in a small case, probably more crude than any container we have today.” It goes without saying that Pope Damasus’ inscription does not say anything about the vessel in which the Sacrament was transported; the idea that it was “probably more crude than any container we have today” is pure fantasy.
Said article was written in defense of the appalling spectacles recently seen at World Youth Day, in which the Sacrament was reserved in a stack of plastic storage containers, with one candle to either side and a houseplant on top, as if to say that modern Portugal is so much like ancient Rome during the era of the great persecutions that it would be unreasonable to think that the organizers could have done any better. One might just as well argue that because an incarcerated priest in a Soviet gulag once celebrated Mass on an upturned bucket, we should have no objection if Mass is celebrated on an upturned bucket in St Peter’s Basilica. (Dixit Bonifacius.)
Eucharistic reservation at the Chartres pilgrimage and at WYD. (Image by Shawn Tribe.)
Note, however, that the legendary version of St Tarsicius’ story is built on the idea that it must have taken place in a time of persecution, because the distribution of the Eucharist is a diaconal duty, and would only be given to an acolyte because no deacon was available. Already in the mid-2nd century, St Justin Martyr says in his First Apology (65) that “those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.” And yet, at WYD, literally hundreds of ordinary ministers of the Eucharist stood around during one of the very large public Masses, and this traditionally diaconal duty was given over to laymen. For some mysterious reason, St Justin is only treated as an “authentic” witness to the Church’s “original” custom when it comes to liturgical improvisation, but in this regard, “that’s what they did in the ancient Church” is selectively ignored.
Perhaps, if we want to learn from the ancient Church how to treat the Blessed Sacrament with reverence, we should turn to a contemporary of St Damasus, one whose ideas on the subject are also routinely misrepresented by selective quotation. “In approaching (to the reception of the Sacrament) therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it, giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?” (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catechesis, 23, 21.)
Behold thy King.

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