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This article is about religious acolytes. For other uses, see Acolyte (disambiguation).

In many Christian denominations, an acolyte is anyone who performs ceremonial duties such as lighting altar candles. In other Christian Churches, the term is more specifically used for one who wishes to attain clergyhood.


The word acolyte is derived from the Greek word akolouthos, meaning companion, attendant, or helper. The Acolyte ministry has its roots in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, where the prophet Samuel is seen assisting Eli, the Levite priest , and Elisha is seen assisting Elijah the Prophet.[1]

Eastern Christianity

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches, the nearest equivalent of acolyte is the altar server. At one time there was a rank of minor clergy called the taper-bearer responsible for bearing lights during processions and liturgical entrances. However, this rank has long ago been subsumed by that of the reader and the service for the tonsure of a reader begins with the setting-aside of a taper-bearer.

The functions of an acolyte or taper-bearer are therefore carried out by readers, subdeacons, or by non-tonsured men or boys who are sometimes called "acolytes" informally. Also, the term "altar-boys" is often used to refer to young altar servers. Subdeacons wear their normal vestments consisting of the sticharion and crossed orarion; readers and servers traditionally wear the sticharion alone.

In recent times, however, in many of the North American Greek Orthodox Churches, for the sake of uniformity, readers have been permitted to wear the orarion (The Bishop presents the reader, who is to serve on the altar, with the orarion). Readers do not cross the orarion while wearing it, the uncrossed orarion being intended to slightly distinguish a reader from a subdeacon.

In the Russian tradition, readers wear only the sticharion, and do not wear the orarion unless they have been specially blessed to by their bishop. (This might be done if a reader must occasionally serve in the role of a subdeacon, or for some other reason the bishop believes is fitting.) If a server has not been tonsured, he must remove the sticharion before he can receive Holy Communion.

In the early church, a taper-bearer was not permitted to enter the sanctuary, only a subdeacon or above was allowed to go in. Nowadays, however, servers are permitted to go in, but they are not permitted either to touch the Holy Table or the Table of Oblation.

Western Christianity



In Anglican churches such as the Episcopal Church of the United States or the Church of England, altar servers are called acolytes and can be of either sex and any age (although usually no younger than ten).

An acolyte can assist in worship by carrying a processional cross, lighting candles, holding the Gospel book, holding candles or "torches", assisting a deacon or priest set up and clean up at the altar, swinging incense or carrying the incense boat, handing the offering plates to ushers, and many other tasks as seen fit by the priest or acolyte warden.

In traditional catholic churches acolytes commonly wear cassock and cotta, and in less catholic churches commonly cassock-alb with girdle. A girdle is usually a twisted rope with knots on the ends which is secured round the waist; it may be white or of the liturgical colour. Wearing crosses or other special pins or symbols is the prerogative of the individual church.

In some more traditional parishes, the acolytes are ranked as they develop their abilities to serve: Trainees, Junior Acolytes, Senior Acolytes, and Acolytes of Merit. In others, the functions of acolytes are performed without vestments, and without significant formal training by persons available in the parish.

In other parishes, Acolytes are referred to according to the roles they perform. E.g. Master of Ceremonies, Crucifer and Thurifer, together with the 1st and 2nd Acolytes.

Methodism and Lutheranism

In the Methodist and Lutheran traditions, acolytes participate in the worship service by carrying a processional cross (these acolytes are called crucifers), lighting the altar candles, extinguishing the altar candles, and ringing the church bell to call the congregation to worship. In these traditions, the lighting of the altar candles in the worship service is a symbol of Jesus’ coming into the presence of the worshiping community. Before lighting the candles the acolyte is suppose to bow at the altar. Before the extinguishing of the last altar candles, the acolytes relight their "candle lighter" and then process out into the narthex. This symbolizes that Jesus Christ is for all people everywhere. It also symbolizes the light of Jesus Christ going out into the world where believers are called to serve.[2] Similar to those in the Anglican tradition, acolytes in these traditions wear robes called albs with a cincture. It is also common for Methodist acolytes to wear the traditional cassock and cotta.

Roman Catholicism

Before August 15, 1972 (with the issuing of Pope Paul VI's moto proprio, suppressing the minor orders) the acolyte was the highest of the minor orders, having as duties the lighting of the altar-candles, carrying the candles in procession, assisting the subdeacon and deacon, and the ministering of water and wine to the priest at Mass. Acolytes wore the cassock and surplice. While acolytes did not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, they were considered part of the clergy, and were considered a step on the way to Holy Orders. In the Latin Rite, they still do exist licitly in some capacity in traditional Catholic groups.

Paul's change was intended to replace the antique titles with two which recognized and encouraged the laity in the work of the Church. The Pope's intention was to have laymen thus able to participate more fully in this. The current Code of Canon Law has incorporated this ministry as one open to all baptized laymen. The Pope expressed the wish that these ministries would not be limited to seminarians. At present, though, this is the usual situation.

In modern Catholic churches, the duties of the acolyte are similar to those described above. Similarly, the instituted ministry of acolyte is reserved to men (however, it is not reserved to those pursuing Holy Orders). Nonetheless, the duties of the acolyte may be filled, by temporary assignment, by any lay person (men and women)[3]. The term altar server is generally used to refer to these temporarily deputized individuals, to differentiate them from those in the instituted ministry (who are most commonly men who intend on entering Holy Orders).

The presence of female altar servers is a relatively new development, originating from an interpretation found in a responsio ad propositum dubium concerning can. 230, § 2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law [4]. In the interpretation, permission was allowed for bishops of each diocese to decide if they wanted to permit the use of altar girls. This permission is granted in a circular letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences on March 15, 1994. This permission did not make their use mandatory, as any pastor could still decline to use them. Further, the letter reaffirmed that altar boys should be encouraged. Currently, one diocese in the United States (Lincoln, NE) does not permit the use of altar girls.


  1. ^ Bruton Parish Episcopal Church: Acolyte Manual
  2. ^ The Woodlands United Methodist Church: What is an Acolyte?
  3. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal: Duties and Ministries at Mass
  4. ^ March 15, 1994 Letter to Episcopal Conferences
  • John N. Wall. A Dictionary for Episcopalians. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ACOLYTE (Gr.bc6XovOos, follower), the last of the four minor orders in the Roman Church. As an office it appears to be of local origin, and is entirely unknown in the Eastern Church, with the exception of the Armenians who borrowed it from the West. Before the council of Nicaea (325) it was only to be found at Rome and Carthage. When in 251 Pope Cornelius, in a letter to Fabius of Antioch, mentions among the Roman clergy forty-two acolytes, placing them after the subdeacons and before the other minor officials (see Eusebius, Hist. Ecc. lib. v. cap. 43), he gives no hint that the office was a new one, but speaks of them as holding an already established position. Their institution has therefore to be sought for at an earlier date than his pontificate. It is possible that the Liber Pontificalis refers to the office under the Latin synonym, when it says of Pope Victor (186-197) that he made sequentes cleros, a term - sequens - which Pope Gaius (283-293) uses in the sense of acolyte. While the office was well known in Rome, there is nothing to prove that it was also an order through which, as to-day, every candidate to the priesthood must pass. The contrary is a fact proved by many monumental inscriptions and authentic statements. Though the office is found at Carthage, and St Cyprian (200?-258) makes many references to acolytes, whom he used to carry his letters, this seems to be the only place in Africa where they were known. Tertullian, while speaking of readers and exorcists, says nothing about acolytes; neither does St Augustine. The Irish Church did not know them; and in Spain the council of Toledo (400) makes no mention either of the office or of the order. The Statuta Ecclesiae Antigua (falsely called the Canons of the Fourth Council of Carthage in 397), a Gallican collection, originating in the province of Arles at the beginning of the 6th century, mentions the acolyte, but does not give, as in the case of the other orders, any form for the ordination. The Roman books are silent, and there is no mention of it in the collection known as the Leonine Sacramentary; while in the so-called Gelasian Massbook, which, as we have it, is full of Gallican additions made to St Gregory's reform, there is the same silence, though in one MS. of the 10th century given by Muratori we find a form for the ordination of an acolyte. While there is frequent mention of the acolyte's office in the Ordines Romani, it is only in the Ordo VIII. (which is not earlier than the 7th century) that we find the very simple form for admitting an acolyte to his office. At the end of the mass the cleric, clad in chasuble and stole and bearing a linen bag on one arm, comes before the pope or bishop and receives a blessing. There is no collation of power or order but a simple admission to an office. The evidence available, therefore, points to the fact that the acolyte was only a local office and was not a necessary step or order for every candidate. In England, though the ecclesiastical organization came from Rome and was directed by Romans, we find no trace of such an office or order until the time of Ecgbert of York (767), the friend of Alcuin and therefore subject to Gallican influence. The Pontifical known as Ecgbert's shows that it was then in use both as an office and as an order, and Aelfric (Io06) in both his pastoral epistle and canons mentions the acolyte. The conclusion, then, which seems warranted by the evidence, is that the acolyte was an office only at Rome, and, becoming an order in the Gallican Church, found its way as such into the Roman books at some period before the fusion of the two rites under Charlemagne.

The duties of the acolyte, as given in the Roman Pontifical, are identical with those mentioned in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antigua of Arles: "It is the duty of acolytes to carry the candlesticks, to light the lamps of the church, to administer wine and water for the Eucharist." It might seem, from the number fortytwo mentioned by Pope Cornelius, that at Rome the acolytes were divided among the seven ecclesiastical regions of the city; but we have no proof that, at that date, there were six acolytes attached to each region. From the ancient division of the Roman acolytes into Palatini, or those in attendance on the pope at the Lateran palace, Stationarii, or those who served at the churches where there was a "station," and Regionarii, or those attached directly to the regions, it would seem that the number forty-two was only the actual number then existing and not an official number. We get a glimpse' of their duties from the Ordines Romani. When the pope rode in procession to the station an acolyte, on foot, preceded him, bearing the holy chrism; and at the church seven regionary acolytes with candles went before him in the procession to the altar, while two others, bearing the vessel that contained a pre-consecrated Host, presented it for his adoration. During the mass an acolyte bore the thurible (Ordo VI.) and three assisted at the washing of the hands. At the moment of communion the acolytes received in linen bags the consecrated Hosts to carry to the assisting priests. This office of bearing the sacrament is an ancient one, and is mentioned in the legend of Tarcisius, the Roman acolyte, who was martyred on the Appian Way while carrying the Hosts from the catacombs. The official dress of the acolyte, according to Ordo V., was a close-fitting linen garment (camisia) girt about him, a napkin hanging from the left side, a white tunic, a stole (orarium) and a chasuble (planeta) which he took off when he sang on the steps of the ambone. At the present day, despite the earnest wish of the council of Trent (Sess. xxiii. cap. 17 d.r.), the acolyte, while remaining an order, has ceased to be essentially a clerical office, since the duties are now performed, almost everywhere, by laymen. The office has been revived, though unofficially, in the Church of England, as a result of the Tractarian movement.

See Morin, Commentarius in sacris Ecclesiae ordinationibus (Antwerp, 1685), ii. p. 209, iii. p. 152; Martbne, De Antiquis Ecclesiae ritibus (Antwerp, 1739), ii. pp. 47 and 86; Mabillon, Musaeum Italicum II. for the Ordines Romani; Muratori, Liturgia Romana Vetus; Cabrol, Dictionnaire d'archeologie chretienne et de liturgie, vol. i. col. 348-536. (E. TN.)

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