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The Parish Acolyte Guide
By Donna H. Barthle
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Donna H. Barthle
All rights reserved.
A Short History of the Acolyte Ministry
The ministry of acolytes exists at the heart of our worship services. The ministry itself, the vestments, the titles, and the duties acolytes perform in assisting a priest to prepare for the mystery that is the Holy Eucharist are directly tied to almost two thousand years of history. Borrowing from an old expression, you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.
The term acolyte comes from the Greek word akolouthos, meaning "follower" or "attendant." Although some people believe that the history of acolytes traces back to Samuel in the Old Testament, the first written historical record of the term appears in a letter from Pope Cornelius to the Bishop of Antioch in the year 251 CE. In this letter, the pope lists the clergy of Rome, which included forty-two acolytes.
In the early history of the church, acolytes were one of four lower orders of the clergy. The primary purpose of the order was to prepare young men for the priesthood. Their duties included lighting and extinguishing candles, carrying candles in procession, taking charge of the alms basin, helping the priest prepare for the Eucharist, and generally fetching and carrying. References in early texts also reveal that some acolytes carried consecrated (or blessed) bread to other churches, took Communion to the sick and imprisoned, and helped prepare and examine candidates for Baptism or Confirmation.
Between the fifth and ninth centuries, in a series of ancient directions to the clergy known as the Ordines Romani, acolyte duties are described and include the information that acolytes led and organized processions preceding the pope. In the same time period, we also see the predecessor of modern gospel processions as two acolytes carried candles to accompany the reader and ensure that he had enough light to see the text.
A favorite story concerns the acolyte Tarsicus. In the year 258 CE, the Roman Emperor Valerian decreed that bishops and priests were to sacrifice to the Roman gods and were forbidden to hold services. The penalty for violation of this decree was death. While taking the consecrated bread from the Pope to churches in the city of Rome, Tarsicus was stopped by a group of soldiers who wanted to see what he was concealing. He refused to show them the sacred bread and was beaten to death on the spot.
The involvement of young people and teenagers in the ministry isn't apparent until the ninth century at the Synod of Mainz, where it was declared that every priest should have a cleric or a boy to read the lessons and assist him in the services. This changed three things in church history. First, young people were allowed to serve the altar. Second, the training of these assistants was left to the individual priest. And third, there was no requirement for these lay assistants to train for or eventually join the priesthood. This is apparently where the parallel ministry of altar boys emerged, although acolytes as an order of the church did not disappear.
After Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Palast Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, few references to acolytes are found, and the ministry may have declined, possibly as a reaction against all things "Roman." The history of acolytes is further confused by the breakaway of other denominations, especially the formation of the Anglican Church when Henry VIII of England split the English Church from the Church of Rome in 1531.
During the Oxford movement in the early 1830s, the Anglican Church began a slow return to more traditional practices, and the ministry of acolytes began to reappear. The ministry all but disappeared for a time in the Lutheran Church but has recently been revived and is steadily growing in popularity as lay involvement in the church increases. In the Roman Catholic Church, while altar boys and girls are firmly established in their slightly limited roles, the ministry of acolytes still exists today as a separate ministry.
Girls and women were admitted to this all-male ministry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their admittance probably was influenced by the women's liberation movement and the ordination of women into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church in 1979 and in the Lutheran Church a few years earlier in the same decade. Another strong influence may have been shrinking family size and the resulting shortage of boys in the right age group. Whether of necessity or because of cultural rebellion, women and girls entered the ministry and were fully integrated by the 1990s in most Episcopal parishes. Most, although not all, Roman Catholic parishes now also assign girls to work on the altar.
Acolytes today remain servants of the altar. No matter the parish or even denominational differences, the primary duty of an acolyte remains to serve God and the Church, and to assist the priest in whatever way he or she needs or prefers. Electricity, instead of candles, now lights a very different altar than Christians of the year 251 C.E. were accustomed to seeing. Those same Christians might easily recognize, however, the humble figure at the foot of the altar dressed in cassock or alb and doing many of the same jobs as his or her predecessor of nearly two thousand years ago.
Identifying Equipment and Vestments
Every vestment and piece of equipment on the altar has a specific purpose and a significance that in some cases goes back centuries, but in other cases may be the result of practical invention in your specific parish. This discussion will touch on and briefly describe a broad range, although not all, of the vestments and equipment commonly used in parish churches. Every parish is a little different, and a comprehensive review would require an entire book.
Vestments for Acolytes, Priests, and Deacons
Acolytes wear one of two types of vestment, either the cassock and cotta or surplice, or the server's alb. Both serve to cover street clothes and help keep the attention of both the acolyte and the congregation on worship rather than on the latest fashion.
Cassock: A simple robe with a high split collar, fitted at the shoulders and sleeves and falling straight to the ankle with no elaborate tucks or gathers. It is usually worn with a surplice or cotta. The traditional color for acolyte cassocks is red, the color of celebration. The priest's cassock is most often black. The cassock was originally the outer garment worn by a priest.
Surplice or cotta: A loose-fitting overgarment with bell sleeves. It is usually white and made of gathered material attached to a rounded or square yoke. A surplice or cotta is worn over the cassock. Acolytes and choir generally wear the shorter cotta. An acolyte's sleeves are often shortened to keep them from catching on vessels or equipment as the acolyte works. Priests most often wear the longer cathedral-length surplice with full-length sleeves. The historical purpose of a surplice or cotta was to keep the cassock clean during the working part of the service, which is why, in many parishes, the acolyte still performs any duties before the entry procession and after the exit procession without wearing the cotta.
Server's alb: A simple, long, loose-fitting robe with sleeves, with or without a hood. It is tied at the waist with a rope belt called a cincture. The alb is generally white or flax colored, although some parishes now use other colors. In monastic history, the alb was the simple clothing of religious orders. Priests may also wear an alb as a basic garment to cover street clothing under clerical vestments. Historically, the acolyte's vestments concealed or covered differences in social status, ensured that only relatively clean outer clothing was worn to approach the altar, and kept the wearer warm in unheated stone churches.
Cincture: This is the long rope belt tied around the waist of an alb. Acolytes usually tie this in a simple square or slipknot on the right side with the ends hanging fairly even. Priests also wear the cincture but tie it differently.
Pectoral cross or pendant: Many acolytes wear a cross of wood or metal or a pendant particular to their parish while serving the altar as a reminder to themselves and others of their duties. The server's cross is usually three to four inches in length and worn on a cord long enough so the cross hangs over the wearer's heart.
Chasuble: A chasuble is a priest's vestment worn for eucharistic services. Similar to a poncho, it hangs from the shoulders, has no specific sleeves, and may be oval or rectangular. Depending on style, it may have a collar or cowl. If there is more than one priest at a service, the primary celebrant wears the chasuble. Historical accounts disagree as to the origin and symbolism behind both the chasuble and the stole but most include the fact that the chasuble designated the primary celebrant at the Eucharist and provided extra warmth. The usual colors match the church seasons, for example, green, white, blue, and red.
Stole: This is a priest's vestment worn for sacramental services. The stole is a long, narrow cloth worn draped around the neck and hanging loose from both shoulders to about the knees. It may or may not be color-coded to match the colors of the altar hangings and the church seasons. Deacons also wear a stole when assisting with sacramental services, but deacons wear it across the chest and crossed or loosely knotted at the hip like a sash. As an alternative, deacons wearing a Byzantine stole wear it across the chest but cross or knot it at the shoulder with the longer, loose ends hanging at the front and back.
Cope: Also a priest's vestment, but unlike the chasuble, a cope looks more like a cape and closes in the front across the chest. Copes are often worn by bishops but may also be worn by priests, deacons, or the laity on special or festive occasions. They are generally quite elaborate.
Dalmatic: A dalmatic is a deacon's vestment generally worn over an alb for services. The color generally varies with the church seasons, as do the chasuble and altar hangings. However, the deacon's vestment is more tailored than a chasuble and has sleeves.
On the Altar, You Will Find ...
Chalice and paten: The chalice is the cup used to hold the wine and water. The paten is the small plate used to hold the host bread during the Eucharist. You may hear the terms communion cup or common cup for the chalice, and bread plate or tray instead of paten. The chalice and paten are usually a matched set and may be stored together under a veil on the altar (see veil later in this section) before and during services. In some parishes, the chalice and paten are kept on the credence table until they are needed in the service and are returned there afterward.
Gospel book: The book of gospel readings used during the service.
Candles: Candles, in general, represent the light of Christ in the world. The two larger candles on either edge of the altar are the eucharistic candles. On the left is the gospel candle (the gospel was traditionally read on that side of the church), and on the right is the epistle candle (the epistles or lessons were traditionally read on that side of the church). The Paschal candle, a large, decorated candle, generally in a separate stand, is used for the fifty days of Easter and for Baptisms, funerals, and other special occasions. The Paschal candle specifically represents the light of the risen Christ and is lighted for the first time each year during the Easter Vigil. Some parishes also use six additional candles, called service candles or office lights. These are lighted routinely for Morning Prayer and all other altar-based services. Office lights are most often used in churches where the altar is against the sanctuary wall or where a candle rail or shelf has been installed on the wall behind and above the altar. Other candles used in the service include Advent candles (usually in a wreath) and sanctuary lights (see page 13).
Service book: This is the prayer book used by the priest, which contains the service and rubrics (instructions for the priest) in print large enough to be read while conducting the service.
Cross or crucifix: On or above the altar, you will generally find a plain cross or crucifix (with a representation of the body of Christ) as a reminder that our faith is based on the life and resurrection of Christ.
Basic altar hangings: These usually include an altar cover in white linen or in the colors of the church seasons. If the cloth is in a color or fabric other than plain white linen, it may be called a "frontal." Lectern and pulpit hangings usually match the colors and symbols on the frontal.
Altar linens: The different linens can be confusing and for the most part the priest and altar guild will deal with them. But occasionally a replacement or extra piece of linen may be needed, and acolytes should be able to identify the basics without a great deal of fuss.
The "fair linen" is the long white, rectangular linen cloth on top of the altar cover.
A "purificator" is a small 12 by 12-inch linen napkin used to wipe the chalice after Communion, it is folded in thirds and may have a small cross embroidered on its face.
The "corporal" is a larger napkin (about 20 by 20 inches) that the priest places on the fair linen under the chalice and paten while he or she prepares the Eucharist. It generally has a cross embroidered in the center or in one corner and is also folded in thirds.
The "pall" is a small (7 by 7 inches) stiff white linen-covered square placed over the chalice when it is not in use.
The "veil" covers the chalice, paten, and pall before and after Communion while those vessels are on the altar. The veil may be white linen but is usually in colors that match the frontal and other hangings. A veil is not used if the chalice and paten are kept on the credence table.
The "burse" is a 9 by 9-inch folder or pocket that holds the service linens. It may also match the altar hangings or be made of white linen.
On the Credence Table, You Will Find ...
The "credence table cover" is smaller than the fair linen and often has a 2-inch embroidered cross.
The "host box," also called a breadbox, is generally a small silver, gold, or ceramic box with a lid, and contains the wafers to be consecrated during the Eucharist. In place of a host box, a ciborium, which is shaped like a chalice with a lid, may be used.
The two cruets, which can be made of glass, crystal, or ceramic, contain wine in one and water in the other. For large services, a large silver or ceramic flagon may be used to hold the wine.
The lavabo bowl and a lavabo towel (rectangular, about 10 by 15 inches) are used for the ceremonial washing of the priest's hands before the Eucharist. A second chalice covered by a purificator and pall may also be on the table if more than one chalice is needed for the service.
On the lower shelf or on a nearby table, you will usually find an alms basin and collection plates or baskets. The term "alms basin" actually applies to the large basin used to carry two or more stacked collection plates, however, the term may also be used to refer to the smaller basins or collection plates.
Other Equipment Acolytes Use
Torch or taper: Both terms refer to candles, generally wax or oil filled, that are carried in processions alone or are used to light the processional cross or the path of a visiting dignitary. If the candle is mounted on a staff, it is usually referred to as a torch. If in a candleholder, it is usually referred to as a taper. The term taper may also refer to the thin wax-covered wick in the candle lighter. Both terms are also used to refer to the acolyte who carries the candle.
Processional cross: This is a cross or crucifix mounted on a staff for processions. The processional cross, carried by a crucifer, generally leads the procession as a reminder that we are called to follow the cross. The entrance of the cross begins the formal worship service.
Sanctus bells: A group of four small bells attached to a single handle. Some parishes use a gong and mallet for the same purpose. The bells are used in many parishes to signal the celebration and presence of Christ in our midst during the Eucharist at the acclamation and at the elevation of the bread and wine. Long ago, when the services were conducted in Latin rather than in the language of the local population, the bells signaled the congregation at important moments in the service.
Sacristy bells: Sacristy bells are either a single bell or a set of three bells, usually attached to a cord and hung on the wall next to the door of the sacristy. The bells, usually rung by an acolyte, signal the entry of the clergy and the beginning of the service.
Excerpted from The Parish Acolyte Guide by Donna H. Barthle. Copyright © 2003 Donna H. Barthle. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. A Short History of the Acolyte Ministry
2. Identifying Equipment and Vestments
3. Traditional Acolyte Duties: How and What We Do
4. The Torchbearer
5. The Crucifer
6. The Server
7. Other Acolyte Jobs