After a three-week break for the summer, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his general audience schedule. More than 80,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the audience, including more than 55,000 altar servers from across Europe. Because of the prominent presence of German-speaking altar servers, the Holy Father delivered his catechesis in German instead of Italian.
His catechesis was devoted to St. Tarcisius, who is the patron saint of altar servers. The Holy Father pointed to the saint’s faithfulness to the Lord as a model first and foremost for altar servers in the Church, but also for every member of the Christian community.
Dear brothers and sisters,
I would like to express the joy I feel today being here among you in St. Peter’s Square, where you have gathered with great festivity for the general audience. The presence of the large pilgrimage of altar servers from Europe is very impressive! Beloved boys and girls and beloved young people, welcome! Since the vast majority of altar servers who are here in the square speak German, I will address them in my mother tongue.
A Festive Occasion
Dear altar servers, dear friends and dear German-speaking pilgrims, welcome to Rome! I extend a wholehearted greeting to you. I also extend greetings to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, my secretary of state, who is named after your patron saint. You were kind enough to invite him, and he, who is named after St. Tarcisius, is happy to be here among altar servers from throughout the world and among the altar servers from Germany.
I greet my brother bishops, my fellow priests and the deacons who are attending this audience. I heartily thank the auxiliary bishop of Basel, Bishop Martin Gächter, president of the Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium, for his words of welcome and for the gift of this statue of St. Tarcisius, as well as for the scarf that he gave me. All of this reminds me of when I too was an altar server. I would like to thank him on your behalf for the wonderful work that he is doing in your midst, and I would also like to thank all his co-workers and all those who made this joyful gathering possible. I would also like to extend my thanks to the sponsors of this movement in Switzerland and to all those who have worked in various ways to make this statue of St. Tarcisius.
There are a lot of you here! Flying over St. Peter’s Square in the helicopter, I could see the multicolored banners and the festive joy present in this square. You have not only made the square a happier place; you have made my heart happier! Thank you!
This statue of St. Tarcisius has made its way to us after a long pilgrimage. It was presented publicly in September of 2008 in Switzerland, in the presence of 8,000 altar servers. Some of you were there, for sure. From Switzerland, it traveled everywhere from Luxembourg to Hungary. Today, we welcome this statue joyfully, delighted to get to know better this figure from the early centuries of the Church.
As Bishop Gächter already said, this statue will be placed at the catacombs of St. Callixtus, where St. Tarcisius is buried. My wish for all of you is that the catacombs of St. Callixtus and this statue will become a reference point for altar servers and for those who wish to follow Jesus more closely in life as a priest, a religious brother or sister, or a missionary.
St. Tarcisius’ Life
Everyone ought to be able to look at this strong and courageous young man and renew their friendship with the Lord himself, in order to always learn from him by following the way that he shows us through his word and through the witness of the many saints and martyrs, whose brothers and sisters we have become through baptism.
Who was St. Tarcisius? We do not have many details regarding his life. He lived during the early times of the Church, specifically in the third century. We are told that he was a young man who often visited the catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome and that he was very faithful to his commitments as a Christian. He had a deep love for the Eucharist, and from various sources, we are able to presume that he was an acolyte — that is, an altar server.
At that time, Emperor Valerian was persecuting the Christians cruelly. They were forced to meet together secretly in private houses or, at times, down in the catacombs in order to listen to God’s word, pray and celebrate Mass. Even the custom of taking the Eucharist to the imprisoned and the sick was becoming increasingly dangerous. One day, when the priest asked — as was the custom — who was able to take the Eucharist to those brothers and sisters who desired to receive it, young Tarcisius stood up and said, “Send me.” The boy seemed too young for such a dangerous job.
“My youthful appearance will be the best protection for the Eucharist,” Tarcisius said.
Convinced, the priest entrusted the Eucharist to him and said: “Tarcisius, remember that a heavenly treasure has been entrusted to your care. Avoid crowded streets, and don’t forget that holy objects are not to be thrown to dogs, nor jewels to swine. Will you faithfully and safely protect these sacred mysteries?” Tarcisius replied resolutely: “I will die before I would let go of them.”
As he was walking, he met some friends who approached him and urged him to accompany them. They were pagans, so when he told them that he was not able to do so, they became suspicious and increasingly insistent. They realized he was holding something to his chest that he seemed to be defending. In vain they tried to take it away from him. The struggle became more intense, especially when they learned that Tarcisius was a Christian. They kicked him and threw stones at him, but he didn’t give up. As he was dying, a praetorian official named Quadrato, who had also secretly become a Christian, carried him to a priest. He was dead when they arrived, yet he was still clutching the little cloth in which the Eucharist was wrapped.
He was immediately buried in the catacombs of St. Callixtus. Pope Damasus had an inscription made for St. Tarcisius’ tomb that indicates that the young man died in the year 257. His feast day has been assigned to Aug. 15 in the Roman Martyrology, which also relates a beautiful oral tradition that has been handed down to us: The Blessed Sacrament was not to be found on St. Tarcisius’ body, either in his hands or among his clothing. It explains that the consecrated host, which the young martyr defended with his life, had become flesh of his flesh, thereby forming with his body one single, immaculate host as an offering to God.
A Lesson for Today
Dear altar servers, St. Tarcisius’ testimony, as well as this beautiful tradition, teach us the profound love and great veneration that we should have for the Eucharist. It is a precious gift, a treasure whose value cannot be measured. It is the bread of life. It is Jesus himself who becomes food, support and strength for our daily journey and the open road to eternal life. It is the greatest gift that Jesus left us.
I address these words to you who are present here and, through you, to altar servers throughout the world! Serve Jesus present in the Eucharist with a generous heart. It is an important task that allows you to be particularly close to the Lord and to grow in a genuine and deep friendship with him. Protect this friendship in your hearts as zealously as St. Tarcisius did, ready to commit yourselves, fight and offer your lives, so that Jesus will reach all men and women.
You too should share this gift of friendship with your peers with joy and enthusiasm and without fear, so that they, too, may realize that you have come to know this mystery — it’s the truth — and that you love it! Every time you approach the altar, you have the good fortune of being present at this great show of God’s love. He still desires to offer himself to each one of us, to be near to us, to help us, and to give us strength to live good lives. At the consecration — as you well know — this little piece of bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ. How fortunate you are to be able to experience this indescribable mystery so closely!
Carry out your service as altar servers with love, devotion and faithfulness. Don’t enter the church for the Celebration of the Eucharist with an air of superficiality. Rather, prepare yourselves interiorly for the holy Mass! By helping your priests in their service at the altar, you contribute to bringing Jesus closer, so that people will realize and experience that Jesus is here. You are helping make Jesus ever more present in the world, in daily life, in the Church, and everywhere.
Commitment to the Lord
Dear friends, you are giving your hands, your thoughts and your time to Jesus. He will not fail to reward you, giving you true joy and helping you experience where full happiness is found. St. Tarcisius shows us that love can even lead us to give our own lives for something genuinely good, for true goodness, for the Lord.
We probably will not be called to martyrdom, but Jesus asks faithfulness of us in the small things, recollection, inner participation in the liturgy, our faith and our efforts to make this treasure present in our everyday life. He asks us for faithfulness in our daily tasks, the witness of his love, attending church out of an inner conviction and for the joy of his presence. In this way, we can even help our friends to know that Jesus is alive.
May the intercession of St. John Mary Vianney, whose liturgical memorial we celebrate today, help us in this task! This humble parish priest from France was able to bring change to a small community and, in doing so, gave new light to the world. The examples of St. Tarcisius and St. John Vianney urge us each day to love Jesus and to carry out his will for us, as the Blessed Virgin Mary did, who was faithful to her son until the very end. Once again, thank you all! May God bless you during the coming days, and may you have a safe journey home!