Who is the Patron Saint of First Communion?
The correct question should be; “Who are the Patron Saints?”, since there is both a holy man and a holy woman named as patron saints of First Communion. St. Tarsicius, a third century Roman altar boy, is the patron, and Blessed Imelda Lambertini a 14th century, 11 year old Italian girl is the patroness. The stories of these two patrons of First Communion reveal their deep and reverent passion for Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament. While Tarsicius has been patron of First Communion for centuries, Blessed Imelda is more recent. It was Pope Pius X who declared Blessed Imelda Lambertini patroness of First Communicants, in 1910, when he modified Church law to allow children as young as seven to receive Holy Communion. Until that time, age 14 was the rule.
Young Saints for Communicants
Since First Communion is typically received around second grade, it is appropriate that the patrons of First Communion are themselves young. Tarsicius was a acolyte, or altar boy and Imelda was age 11. Even at an early age they understood and cherished the gift found in the eucharist. If the desires of the heart define us, these two patrons are defined by their devotion to the Blessed Sacrament
A Martyr for the Blessed Sacrament
The primary source for the story of St. Tarsicius is found in the inscription that Pope Damasus (366-384) had placed on the tomb of the boy martyr. During a time of persecution of the Church, it tells the story of Tarsicius. After mass he took consecrated Hosts to imprisoned Christians awaiting martyrdom. As a boy, he would be less suspect making the visit than if he were a man.
As he traveled to the prison along the Roman road, known as the Appian Way, he ran into a group of pagan boys and men who began to harass him. While they did not know, specifically, he belonged to the hidden group of Christians, they demanded he show them what he had in his hands, which were hiding in his clothes. Tarsicius refused, knowing they would likely take and desecrate the Blessed Sacrament if they got it from him. His continued refusal angered the crowd who began to assault him. As the angry mob beat him Tarcisius fell to the stones of the Appian Way, shielding the Host beneath his body. The mob continued their attack even after he fell, eventually killing him. When they rolled his body over to discover what he had been hiding, they found nothing. The Host had vanished.
Christians recovered his body and buried him in the catacomb of St. Callixtus, not far from where he was killed. His relics are now located in Rome at the Church of San Silvestro in Capite. St. Tarsicius of Rome, martyr of the Blessed Sacrament, became the first Patron Saint of First Communion.
Ecstatic First, and Last Communion
Blessed Imelda Lambertini had an all consuming desire for unity with Jesus in Holy Communion. Born to a noble family in Bologna, Italy in 1322 she was guided in her faith by devout Catholic parents, Egano and Donna Castora Lambertini. From as young as 5 years of age she expressed a deep desire to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament by making her First Communion. At that time, the age was set around 14, so Imelda found her greatest desire denied her. This disappointment did not diminish her desire to live in God’s grace and she persisted in seeking permission to receive Holy Communion.
Dominican tradition tells us that at age 9 she went to live with the Dominican nuns at Val di Pietra, a neighboring monastery. Given that church laws which regulate admission to religious orders were not yet enacted, she may have actually embraced religious life at this young age. It is also possible that her pious parents committed her to the habit for a certain number of years. Whatever the case, Imelda embraced her new life with fidelity and devotion.
She fervently hoped the chaplain for the convent would allow her to receive communion, since she was a nun, but he held firm that she must wait. She experienced a type of holy envy as she saw other girls reach the age and receive Communion. She held such a vision that the experience would be rapturous, that she would ask others “How is it possible to receive Jesus into one’s heart and not to die?”
It was May 12, 1333, the the Vigil of the Ascension, two years after Imelda entered the monastary. Now age 11, she watched yet again as everyone but her went to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Imelda longed to go up to receive Communion, but as she had been ordered to wait until she was old enough, she remained back with a longing heart. After Mass she remained behind.
Accounts of the specifics vary, but she was found a time later by one of the sisters, kneeling as she had been when they left, with a glowing light suspended above her. Inside that light was the Sacred Host. The other sisters were called, as was the Chaplain. Seeing the scene, he knew that his decision was overruled and that Jesus was making His desire known. The Chaplain gave Imelda her first communion.
Kneeling in prayer and ecstacy, the child closed her eyes and joined her Lord as her soul departed from her body. She went from First Communion to eternal communion.
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What these Patrons Teach Us About Holy Communion
The life stories of these two patrons can be instructional for modern Catholics living in a fast food culture. Both Imelda and Tarsicius had a devotion to Jesus fully present in the Blessed Sacrament. They treasured this spiritual food in the core of their being.
The consuming longing of Blessed Imelda was for the Bread of Life. Coming from a family of means, she could have had anything she wanted in the world. But her heart’s desire was not aimed at something worldly. Her aim was heavenward. We can also learn from her unwaveringly persistence. She did not relent or accept a lesser substitute.
Saint Tarsicius shows us that it is important to stand for your belief even in the face of adversity. He took risks to bring Jesus to those facing death. He gave his life, not for bread, but to guard his savior. His refusal to risk of desecration the Blessed Sacrament shows his deep belief in the real presence.