Two Saints of the Eucharist
Tarsicius and Pius X
by Susan Vennari
When I was eight years old, I fell in love. The boy was not much older than I was; I first read about him, or maybe someone told me about him. His name was "Tarsicius" -- Saint Tarsicius, and he became my dearest friend. How those few words I learned about him burned in my heart. Tarsicius, the boy- saint of the early days of the Church.
Valerian's persecutions of the Christians had been ferocious, and every priest had to fear for his life. Christians already in prison were a kind of bait to ensnare priests who would carry the Eucharist to the prisoners. Thus, it was sometimes permitted that a faithful youth might be entrusted with the dangerous mission to carry this Sacrament to those heroic prisoners who were waiting to die. Tarsicius was such a one.
His age is unknown to us, but one day he was sent, perhaps starting off up the long stairway from the catacombs of St. Callistus. We can only imagine his route, along the Appian Way, past the silent monuments to dead Romans. I used to imagine that I walked along with him. Some others would follow along, a little behind us, in case of any problems. Tarsicius, known to be a Christian, was yet a popular young man, always cheerful. As we approached the city, some boys who were playing called to him to join their games. "No," he called back to them, "not today." "Where are you going? -- You don't have to go off yet." And he smiled good- naturedly.
Then one of the boys, peeved that Tarsicius would not help to even the sides, called out from a rooftop, "Hey, whatcha got, Tarsicius?" "Hey, maybe he's got the 'mysteries' -- Tarsicius, have you got the 'mysteries'?" "Lemme see," joined another. In that moment everything changed, as the boys smelled the blood of a hunt. Like jackals, they descended. Prickled with fear, I would look at Tarsicius -- "How can we escape?!" As we started to run, I caught a look at his face. It was not frightened, but clear. He would not deign "to cast pearls before swine". The first rock hit him in the shoulder, and as he spun around, I could hear shouts. Two more rocks flew together at his head -- and then, everything was slow motion. He smiled at me, I thought, as he fell. It seemed he spoke that prayer I had learned for my First Communion: "My Lord and My God."
I saw the boys upon him now, yelling and beating him with sticks. They pushed past me, ignoring me. But I fell back. Through the crowd I could see Tarsicius curled up in a tight ball, protecting the sacred Mysteries with the cloak of that prayer. They were tearing at him, trying to see what he enveloped with his body, but they could not get to that which he enclasped so tightly.
It seemed the longest time they beat upon him. Suddenly there was silence. "Tarsicius, are you dead?" Someone kicked at him, and the arms of the lifeless body fell back. And then the miracle was revealed: "Nothin'. He's got nothin'." As they stood there perplexed, they heard a shout. Now they were frightened off, as our distant companions caught up to us. I wanted to help carry him, but I was useless. I wanted to fall with him and be joined in that holy sacrifice he offered. But it was not my turn this day. So, quickly, I collected as much of the blood-soaked sand as I could. Then we fled through the alleys and back to our refuge at the catacombs.
Many who read this story may remember it from a third-grade reader. Did this story stay with you as it did with me?
Defender of the Eucharist
When Pius X ascended to the Papacy in the summer of 1903, he was already known to be devoted to the Eucharist. As Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, the office he held immediately prior to the papacy, he demonstrated this in various ways. His work there exemplifies this service to the Eucharist and foreshadows his mission as Pope.
He began perpetual adoration in Venice. He encouraged frequent Communion for the laity and for seminarians. He urged that children communicate at an earlier age than twelve or fourteen, which had become the practice, and he himself delivered many First Communions. He encouraged public veneration of the Blessed Sacrament in a Eucharistic Congress, so that "... in the light of day, God's supreme dominion over man and all things, … His right to command and His authority may be fully realized and respected."
He was devoted to the Eucharist from his youth, and gave his priesthood over to serving It. As he matured, the ardor of his devotion only increased, especially the more he perceived It to be threatened or denigrated by others. An example of his vigilant response to defend the Eucharist is recalled from his patriarchate in Venice. In the early days after he became Cardinal of Venice, vandals broke into the tabernacle of Santa Maria in Nazareth, a church maintained by the Discalced Carmelites. The vandals stole the precious ciboria and scattered the Eucharistic hosts across the ground.
Upon hearing the news of this sacrilege, Cardinal Sarto was deeply distressed. Wasting no time, he published a letter to all the clergy and faithful of Venice. The letter called for reparation for this profanity to the Blessed Sacrament. It was published as a poster and put up throughout the city. Three days of expiatory ceremonies were held in Santa Maria, where the desecration had taken place. In addition, all the churches of the city held Eucharistic adoration for an hour on the following Sunday. Pius' immediate response to the sacrilege, and the quantity and quality of the reparation called for, emphasized to the Venetians the sublimity of the Sacrament.
Promoter of the Eucharist
No wonder, then, that his Papal program as Pius X turned specific attention to the Eucharist.
Within the first five years, he published the Decree concerning Frequent and Daily Communion. Within the next three years, he instructed that the sick be granted every facility to receive the Eucharist as often as possible. Shortly after that, he lowered the age for First Communion to the age of 'seven, more or less.'
These decrees, though welcomed by many, were not met with universal pleasure.
For nearly three hundred years, the Church had been fighting the heresy of Jansenism. Arising first in Holland, it became particularly virulent in France. Though it was condemned in 1653 by Innocent X, its effects were pernicious. Clergy and faithful alike had been diverted from the Sacrament. Catholics throughout the world had come to regard the reception of Holy Communion more as a "reward, than as a remedy for human frailty". The faithful received Communion rarely, and children were re- strained from First Communion until twelve or fourteen years of age, the opinion being that they could comprehend and give proper reverence to the Sacrament at the later age. But these practices were abuses, not the intention of the Church.
Pius X enlarged upon the earlier efforts of Leo XIII to encourage frequent communion. He recalled to the Church the instruction by the Council of Trent. "[A]t each Mass, the faithful who are present should communicate, not only in spiritual desire, but also by the sacramental participation of the Eucharist that thereby a more abundant fruit might be derived to them from this most holy sacrifice."
Pius X addressed the age of First Communion in the subsequent decree Quam Singulari, issued in 1910. He recalled first the joy Our Lord found in the company of children. "Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." He reminded Catholics that it had been the custom in the early Church to give communion to infants (as is still the practice in some of the venerable Eastern rites). The document defined the age of reason following Saint Thomas Aquinas, "as soon as children begin to have a certain use of reason, as so to be able to conceive devotion to this Sacrament". (This is called "incipient reason".) The benefits will be that "[the child] may approach Jesus Christ at an early age, live his life and there find protection against the dangers of corruption".
Pius X considered it sufficient for the child to be able to distinguish the Eucharistic bread from ordinary bread. Catechism, of course, must follow, but the importance of the Food is to nourish the young soul and preserve its innocence. Early and frequent Communion would form eager hearts so as to develop pure love for Our Lord, which is a consolation to Him.
"I have found it much easier to prepare little children" said Pius, "than those who are older -- the preparation is so much more objective than subjective. It is more a realization of how lovable, how desirable, how loving Our Lord is, than a preoccupation of how they can make themselves worthy -- or less unworthy -- to receive Him. ... The actual first communion appears to the little ones as the very loving embrace of a much-loved Father; to the older ones it is more a welcome to a loved and honored guest, with -- if I may so put it -- the preoccupations of a hostess." How his comment recalls Christ's words to Martha and Mary. "Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things; and yet only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken away from her."
"Let the little children come"
Pius X himself was generous in his judgment of "incipient reasoning".
An Englishwoman who had a private audience with the Pope brought her little boy of four to receive his blessing. While she was talking, the child stood a little distance looking on; but presently he crept up to the Pope, put his hands on his knees and looked up into his face.
"How old is he?" asked Pius, stroking the little head.
"He is four," answered the mother, "and in two or three years I hope he will make his First Communion."
The Pope looked earnestly into the child's clear eyes. "Whom do you receive in Holy Communion?" he asked.
"Jesus Christ," was the prompt answer.
"And who is Jesus Christ?"
"Jesus Christ is God," replied the boy, no less quickly.
"Bring him to me tomorrow," said Pius, turning to the mother, "and I will give him Holy Communion myself." 
Pius X was a warrior Pope for the rights of God and to win souls. Every person of our times must be grateful to him for his proclamations on the Eucharist. The cumulative effects of the Eucharistic decrees were re- marked by priests and chaplains world wide in the years to follow. Jansenist tendencies were smashed. Biographers, writing some years after his pontificate, repeat the title "Pope of the Eucharist," which was applied to him by Pius XI on a monument erected in 1923. He "produced a spiritual revolution". Elsewhere, "The Eucharistic Decrees of Pius X are among the most important Acts ever put forth by the Papacy. They may well be called a stroke of genius." A few years later: "Pope Pius XII had described these Decrees as inspired by God Himself to bring the faithful back to the ecclesiastic practice and fervor of the early Church."
Benefits of the Eucharist
Pius X reminded us that to approach the altar worthily does not depend on knowledge, but on having the proper intention and love (as well as to be in a state of grace).The young mind and heart are unfettered and undivided in interest. What may be lacked in understanding is offset by ardor and purity of intention. But the effects of the Eucharist upon the soul are manifold, especially for children.
Holy Communion provides food for the child's interior life; It unites the soul to Christ; It floods the soul with spiritual sweetness and delight; It lessens concupiscence; It is the children's antidote to temptations: to the attacks of the devil; to bad companionship and objectionable recreation; to impure and sinful conversations; to salacious literature and indecent movies; and to sinful desires and inclinations. The Eucharist delivers the child from daily venial sins.
Pius X took literally the injunction from Christ, "Feed My lambs." He did not consider the words "spiritual food" to be some kind of metaphor, as the modern interpretation often goes. "I am the Bread of Life," and "My flesh is food indeed." were at the very heart of Father Giuseppe's priesthood. "The Divine Eucharist is the center of the faith, the final goal of every other devotion." This was the first truth he fought for as priest, as Cardinal and as Pope.
To teach the soul at an early age to love Our Lord in the Eucharist will imprint an indelible memory of the sweetness of those innocent days. Tarsicius, acolyte of the early Church, would have been fed in frequent reception of the Blessed Sacrament, to which he was devoted in life, and to which he clung in death. His love for Christ in the Eucharist enkindled mine, for a child learns love before he learns reason. Because of the Eucharistic decrees of Pius X, I was given a taste of the strengthening Food called the "Bread of Angels". I did not have the discipline of piety as a child. But when I would receive Holy Communion, my thoughts would fly to my dear friend and my Friend. Sunday after Sun- day, this virtue was nurtured and fed. And Tarsicius stayed with me a long time, though my devotions turned to other saints as the years passed.
A Memory Recalled
One day, in 1977, it was announced in the parishes of my diocese, that we would now have the "option" to receive Communion in our hands. Pamphlets detailing the procedures for receiving the Eucharist were distributed to the stunned parishioners. Almost everyone fell in as this new upheaval began.
As in those days I spent with Tarsicius, now I fell back anew. I saw him again, as I did when I was young, buffeted by the legs of those boys. How could his noble sacrifice be made so absurd? My old friend was being mocked, as if he had died for some noble sentiment instead of for the King of kings, the Truth. Although I had been a daily communicant for several years by then, and would continue to approach the altar on a frequent basis, I did not yet know about the Traditional movement. Nor was I to arrive back at Tradition for another fifteen years. But from that moment in 1977, until I was restored again to the Tridentine Mass, my love for St. Tarsicius helped me to realize that something terrible was being wrought. That spark of understanding encouraged me to resist in what ways I could, and to search for the truth.
I pondered the life and death of St. Tarsicius when I was a child, and I was increased in love for the Blessed Sacrament. As I have written this article, Saint Pius X has helped me to renew this contemplation. Once again, I have been able to focus in a special way on the Eucharist and to have my love for It enkindled. It is a grim irony, however, to consider that within one hundred years, we are again unable to receive Our Lord daily at the altar. When the very words of the Canons of the New Mass cause uncertainty as to the completion of the sacrifice, how can one approach the altar? Catholics are starving with Lazarus at the rich man's gate. We call out to our pastors for the Heavenly Food, and we find Jeremiah's lamentation applicable to our times: "The little ones asked for bread, and there was none to break it to them."
As Cardinal Sarto processed through the streets of Venice, as Pope Pius X processed through the aisles of Saint Peter's, carrying the monstrance before him, might not his thoughts have recalled Tarsicius, the boy- saint of the Eucharist? As the words of the Tantum Ergo were sung at Benediction, might not he have seen Tarsicius as I did, 'Down in adoration falling?' The sublime words of the Angelic Doctor described the death of one youth, who loved the Eucharist with his whole being, laying out his life to protect and to defend the Sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord. As the Priest/Cardinal/Pope lifted the monstrance to bless the faithful, did he not hope that the faithful would gaze upon the Sacred Species with the ardor of that martyred acolyte? Tarsicius and Saint Pius X, united by love for the Eucharist, were graced by supernatural courage and fortitude. Knowing the difficulties of the tasks set before them, yet they found the service required of them easy, thanks to the workings of the Holy Ghost in souls fed upon the Living Bread.
Saint Tarsicius's feast day, August 15, is overshadowed by the greater feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. He is believed to be buried in the catacombs of Saint Callistus, but his relics have never been positively identified. The feast of Saint Pius X is observed on September 3. His incorrupt body is entombed in an altar at Saint Peter's in Rome.
1. The episode is recounted told in the Roman Martyrology, August 15.
2. E Supremi, the first Encyclical of his pontificate. October 4, 1903, par. 7.
3. Yves Chiron, Saint Pius X: Restorer of the Church. (Translated by Graham Harrison) Kansas City, Missouri, 2002, p. 105.
4. Decree on Frequent Communion, December 20, 1905.
5. Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council, September 15, 1906, and Decree on Communion of the Sick and the Eucharistic Fast, December 7, 1906, as cited in Chiron, p. 291, n. 25.
6. Quem Singulari, [sic], in Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, par. 2137 ff.
7. "The Eucharistic Formation of Children," by Very Reverend Rudolph G. Bandas in A Symposium on the Life and Work of Pope Pius X, prepared under the Direction of the Episcopal Committee of The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Washington, D.C., 1946, p. 185.
8. Council of Trent, Session XXII, Chapter 6, in Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma,1957.
9. See discussions in Chiron, p. 291 f., and Bazin, p. 184 ff.
10. As quoted, in F.A. Forbes' Pope Saint Pius X, (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1987), p. 84.
11. Luke, 10:41-2.
12. Forbes, op. cit., p.85.
13. Chiron, op. cit., p. 303.
14. McAuliffe, p. 139
15. Pius X, by Rene Bazin. Translated from the Second Edition by the Benedictines of Talacre, (Saint Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1928), p. 187.
16. McAuliffe, p. 140.
17. Abstracted from Bandas, op. cit., 190 ff.
18. John 21:16.
19. John 6:35.
20. John 6:56.
21. Chiron, op. cit., p. 295.
22. Lam. 4:4
from the August 2003 edition of
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