Historically, an acolyte (i.e., one who follows, a companion) referred to the fourth and highest of the minor orders. The ministry of the acolyte, as well as that of the subdeacon, arose from a division of the ministry of the deacon. The chief duties of the acolyte were to assist the deacon and the priest in liturgical celebrations. As an order instituted by the Church, it was not considered a Sacrament, but a sacramental participating in the order of the deacon. By the motu proprio Ministeria quaedam, dated Aug. 15, 1972, Pope Paul VI suppressed the four minor orders and, as replacement, instituted the ministries of acolyte and lector, both of which are open to qualified laity. Pope Paul VI laid out the responsibilities of an acolyte as follows: "The acolyte is appointed in order to aid the deacon and to minister to the priest" (see Ministeria quaedam, VI). Ministeria quaedam lists the responsibilities of acolytes as follows: (1) to assist at the altar, by aiding the priest or deacon, at the Preparation of the Gifts in Mass, (2) to assist deacons and priests in other liturgical celebrations, (3) to aid in the distribution of communion, where necessary, (4) in extraordinary circumstances, to be entrusted with publicly exposing the Blessed Sacrament for adoration and afterward replacing it, "but not with blessing the people," and (5) "to the extent needed, take care of instructing other faithful who by temporary appointment assist the priest or deacon in liturgical celebrations by carrying the missal, cross, candles, etc., or by performing other such duties" (ibid.).
Although the minor order of acolyte as a stepping stone to the major orders has been abolished, the 1983 Code of Canon Law requires candidates to the permanent or transitional diaconate to have received the ministries of lector and acolyte (c. 1035 §1). Canon 1035 §2 stipulates that there is to be "an interval of at least six months between the conferral of the ministry of acolyte and the diaconate."
Altar Servers. The substitution of altar servers for minor clerics dates back more than 1,000 years. In the 9th century at the Synod of Mainz it was decreed that "Every priest should have a cleric or boy (scholarem ) to read the epistle or lesson, to answer him at Mass, and with whom he can chant the psalms" (Admonitio Synodalis, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 132:456). For more than 1,000 years, only boys were permitted to be altar servers. The 1983 Code of Canon Law confirms the traditional practice of male altar servers when it permitted qualified lay men to be admitted, among other things, to the ministry of acolyte (Codex iuris canonici [Rome 1918; repr. Graz 1955] c. 230 §1). At the same time, c. 230 §2 states, among other things: "All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law." By an instruction dated June 30, 1992, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments held that the use of female altar servers was permissible under c. 230 §2. Pope John Paul II confirmed this interpretation on July 11, 1992 [see AAS 86 (1994) 541, Origins 23 (April 28, 1994) 777–779]. The Congregation reminded bishops that boys should remain servers at the altar, since this is a source of vocations to the priesthood.
Bibliography: Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, Study Text III, Ministries in the Church: Commentary on the Apostolic Letters of Pope Paul VI, "Ministeria quaedam" and "Ad pascendum" (Washington, D.C. 1974). International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Institution of Readers and Acolytes (Washington, D.C. 1976). Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, "Instruction on Female Altar Servers," Origins 23 (April 28, 1994) 777–779.
[t. j. riley/
j. a. gurrieri/eds.]
ac·o·lyte / ˈakəˌlīt/ • n. a person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. ∎ an assistant or follower.