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International pilgrimage of altar servers

· Fifty-three thousand youth expected in St Peter's Square ·

Fifty-three thousand altar servers have arranged to meet in Rome from 2 to 4 August for their International Pilgrimage, the youngest only 10 years old. The highlight of their visit will be the Holy Father's General Audience in St Peter's Square, which coincides with the resumption of the Wednesday General Audiences after the July break.

The event has been organized by Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium. This year the association is celebrating its 50th anniversary by meeting the Pope at the General Audience on Wednesday, preceded by a prayer Vigil in St Peter's Square on Tuesday evening, 3 August. The theme of the 2010 pilgrimage is “Drink from the true source”.

During the Audience the Pope will bless an enormous statue of St Tarcisius. It is almost five metres high, weighs four tons and was cast in bronze by Bernhard Lang at a Swiss foundry in Aarau which specializes in making sculptures and bells.

With this work the artist gives expression to his own experience as an altar boy. He portrays the young Tarcisius walking, to convey his readiness to serve at the altar. The statue is not set on a pedestal since young people are seldom still; and the statue holds a box in which the altar servers place documents, prayers and photos.

It was in Switzerland, in September 2008, surrounded by more than 8,000 altar servers, that the large statue of Tarcisius first stepped into the public eye. Its two-year pilgrimage has taken it from Aarau to Einsiedeln, to Schmerikon and St Gallen and to Echternach in Luxembourg, where it took part in the festival of the Lëtzebuerger massendenger – the Luxembourg altar servers. It then visited Györ, Hungary, for the first get-together of Hungarian altar servers.

The statue of St Tarcisius is to be set in the Catacombs of St Calixtus on the Appian Way, close to what is thought to be the original tomb of the young martyr.

Tarcisius is one of the few child or adolescent Saints. Because of his enthusiasm for the faith and his dedication to the needy he is Patron of all altar servers as well as Protector of first communicants.

The life and martyrdom of Tarcisius – in Greek, “the courageous one” – have been handed down to us in a poem by Pope Damasus (366-384 ad).

The Pope says that the young Tarcisius was killed by pagans in Rome while bringing Holy Communion to sick and imprisoned Christians. He refused to expose it to desecration.

Between the sixth and seventh centuries further information was added. According to a Passion play and contemporary guides Tarcisius, described as an acolyte, was killed on 15 August 257. This was therefore the date that the Roman Martyrology established as his Feast, as it is to this day.

A later tradition claims that Pope Zephyrinus (199-217) and Tarcisius are said to have been buried in the same tomb – although in different years – in the burial ground of Calixtus on the Appian Way.

These catacombs are a reminder of St Tarcisius' enthusiasm for the faith, for taking Holy Communion to Christians who were sick or in prison and for serving the needy. The young martyr's remains were later translated to the Basilica of San Silvestro in Capite, Rome.

Pope Damasus did not name the cause of his death but his emphasis on the parallels to St Stephen suggest that Tarcisius might also have been stoned to death. It remains unclear whether Tarcisius was killed in the context of the persecution of Christians or due to a specific incident.

Tarcisius thus returns to his homeland, for it is near the grave of the altar servers' Patron Saint that the Church has created the first public place dedicated to all altar servers. The statue is a “messenger”. It will encourage all young people and adults, also in the future, to serve God and humankind – both in the Church and in the streets of this world.

The artist and goldsmith, Bernhard Lang from Basel, Switzerland, drew inspiration from many altar servers to create the figure of St Tarcisius. In his statue, he brings to the fore the Saint's openness and willingness to serve.

Today numerous altar servers across the world, girls and boys, reliably and as a matter of course assume an important task at the altar during many Holy Masses. This small yet important service is to be unmistakably visible here, combined with a large “thank you” to young people. Jesus also focused on children and recommended them as role models.

Altar servers have given Tarcisius an official document with signatures, photos and documents to take along within his body so that he may always remain one of them as their Patron Saint.

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