Altar server

Altar server

An altar server or Acolyte is a lay assistant to a member of the clergy during a religious service. Acolytes attend to supporting tasks at the altar such as fetching and carrying, ringing the altar bell, etc.

Acolytes in the Roman Catholic Church

Formally, only young men, among whom the Church hoped to recruit for the priesthood, and seminarians, who need the training, are Acolytes; and thus altar boy was the usual term until it was acknowledged that females were allowed to serve at the altar. The term alter server is now widely used and accepted due to this. An Acolyte is one of the minor orders. This term is now usually reserved for the ministry that all who are to be promoted to the diaconate, whether permanent or transitory, must receive at least six months beforehand (canon 1035 of the Code of Canon Law).

Duties of the Acolyte

The Roman Rite of the celebration of Mass, Acolytes have the following responsibilities (depending which type of mass) during
*Mass of the Catechumens
**Processional: Acolytes carry the thurible, incense boat, processional cross and candles (flambeaux) in a Missa Cantata.
**After the sacristy bells are rung and first genuflection at the high altar, the Acolyte takes the Priest’s biretta, kisses it, and places on the Presidential Chair.
**Post-Epistle: Acolytes move Missal from Epistle side of the altar to the Gospel side of the altar.

*Mass of the Faithful
**Acolytes ring the altar bell once as the Priest unveils Chalice and places Veil on Altar.
**Preparation of the chalice: Acolytes present the cruets of water and wine for the Deacon or Priest to pour in the chalice.
**Lavabo: An Acolyte administers the water to the Priest as he ritually washes his hands.
**Beginning of the Sanctus: Altar bell is rung thrice.
**Canon of Mass: When the Priest extends his hands over the chalice, Acolytes ring altar bell once, stand, take the bell, without genuflecting kneel on either side of the Priest.
**Consecration: At each Consecration Acolytes make a deep bow at the Priest’s first genuflection, and ring the bell once. During each Major Elevation, Acolytes kneel erect, raising the back of the chasuble and ringing the bell thrice. During the Priest’s second genuflection, Acolytes release chasuble, make a deep bows and ring the bell once. After the Consecration, holding the bell, Acolytes return to their posts and kneel.
**Post Agnus Dei: Acolytes get patens from credence table and go back to posts with genuflections and kneeling. When the Priest genuflects and says the triple "Domine, non sum dignus..." Acolytes ring the bell thrice.
**Communion: Follow Priest with paten in hand and hand over breast for the Faithful's Communion.
**Ablutions: Get the water and wine cruets from credence table. For the first Ablution at center of the Altar, the Acolyte with the wine approaches as the Priest tips the chalice toward the Acolyte. The Acolyte pours a little wine into the chalice, he bows and turns to his right and returns to the Epistle corner and wait for the Priest. When the Priest approaches for the second Ablution, the Acolyte makes a moderate bow, pours a little wine over his fingers and then as much water as he desires. Then, with genuflections, switch the chalice veil from the Gospel side to the Epistle side with the Missal at the same time.
**Ending procession: Same as Processional.

In the Ordinary Form

In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite of the celebration of Mass, Acolytes have the following responsibilities during
*Gathering: Acolytes may carry the processional cross and candles (flambeaux) at the front of the gathering procession. Others may carry incense and a thurible.
*Proclamation of the Gospel: If it is a regional habit, flambeaus and/or incense can be carried in procession to the Pulpit.
*Offertory: When the priest receiving these gifts, Acolytes assist him by carrying them.
*Preparation of the chalice: Acolytes present the cruets of water and wine for the deacon or priest to pour in the chalice.
*Lavabo: An Acolyte administers the water to the priest as he ritually washes his hands.
*Liturgy of the Eucharist: Acolytes ring altar bell at the unveiling of the chalice veil and both elevations of the species.
*Ending procession: When the priest and the Acolytes leave the altar, again the processional cross is carried, perhaps with flambeaux. In most ordinary situations, one altar Acolyte is enough, but many parishes prefer two or more Acolytes. The weekday Liturgy usually only requires a single Acolyte. If a bishop celebrates Mass solemnly, two vimpas, so as to take care of mitre and crosier, as well as other functions.


Acolytes formally wear an the cassock and surplice during a liturgy. According to the general rule of the Latin Rite a surplice should always be worn over a cassock. Traditionally, an Acolyte wore the same colour as the church's pastor or rector. Thus, a red cassock would be worn if the pastor had that privilege. Black and red are the most common colours for an Acolyte cassock.

Acolytes do not wear a clerical collar or rabat (clothing). In English-speaking countries that collar is traditionally worn from ordination as a subdeacon onward, but in others it was worn by all seminarians.

Female altar servers

It was customary to reserve all service at the altar to males. It was strictly forbidden to have women serving near the altar within the sacred chapel, that is, they were prohibited from entering the altar area behind the altar rails during the liturgy. [Catholic Moral Theology, Fr. Jone OFMCap, Nr. 315.] In his encyclical "Allatae Sunt" of 26 July 1755, Pope Benedict XIV explicitly condemned females serving the priest at the altar with the following words:

"Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: "Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry." We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution "Etsi Pastoralis", sect. 6, no. 21." [ [ Encyclical Allatae Sunt, 26 July, 1755, Pope Benedict XIV, paragraph 29.] ]

In the period of liturgical experimentation following the Second Vatican Council, some dioceses allowed girls to act as altar servers. For example, this practice started as early as 1965 in Germany. The Vatican sought to put an end to such experimentation with the 1970 instruction " [ Liturgicae instaurationes] ", ["All earlier permissions for experimentation with the Mass, granted in view of the liturgical reform as it was in progress, are to be considered as no longer in effect", "Liturgicae instaurationes", n. 12.] and affirmed that only males could serve the priest at the altar. ["In conformity with norms traditional in the Church, women (single, married, religious), whether in churches, homes, convents, schools, or institutions for women, are barred from serving the priest at the altar", "Liturgicae instaurationes", n. 7.] However, the practice nonetheless continued in some places, and the Vatican reaffirmed the prohibition against female altar servers in the 1980 instruction " [ Inaestimabile donum] ". ["Women are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers", "Inaestimabile donum", n. 18]

With the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, some argued that this reservation to males no longer held, ["The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary", ed. by James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschel, Paulist Press, 1985, ISBN 0-8091-0345-1.] based of the inclusion of both males and females in canon 230 §2: "Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law." In some dioceses, girls were allowed to act as altar servers under the new canon law, without any explicit decision on the matter from the Holy See.

The decision came in the form of a circular letter [] from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to presidents of episcopal conferences on 15 March 1994, which announced a 30 June 1992 authentic interpretation (confirmed on 11 July 1992 by Pope John Paul II) from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. This authentic interpretation said that canon 230 §2 states that service at the altar is one of the liturgical functions that can be performed by both lay men and women. The circular letter, written by the cardinal-prefect of the Congregation, also clarified that canon 230 §2 has a permissive and not a preceptive character, that is, it allows, but does not require, the use of female altar servers. Thus it was for each diocesan bishop to decide whether to allow them in his diocese.

A later document [] made clear that, even if a bishop decided to permit girl altar servers, the priest in charge of a church in that diocese was not obliged to accept them, since there was no question of anyone, male or female, having a "right" to become an altar server.

The 1994 declaration that there was no canonical prohibition against girl altar servers was published shortly before Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter [ "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis"] of 22 May 1994, which affirmed that the male-only priesthood is a matter of Divine Law and cannot be changed. "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" however said nothing about girl altar servers being forbidden, as was expected as the subject of this apostolic letter was priestly ordination.

Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, altar servers assist the higher clergy during services. They might carry the cross, candles or liturgical fans in processions and entrances; maintain the censer, ensuring it has enough live charcoal, loading it with incense and handing it to the priest or deacon when required; preparing the hot water ("zeon") in time for it to be added to the chalice at the Divine Liturgy; prepare the antidoron for the people to receive after Holy Communion; and any other necessary tasks so that the celebrant need not be distracted during the service. An altar server is vested in the sticharion only.

In the early Church, before someone could be a server he had to be tonsured. Nowadays, in many places it is not necessary to be tonsured before one is allowed to serve (since the tonsure must be done by a bishop or higher-ranking priest). The rites of "Setting Aside a Taper-bearer" and "Tonsuring a Reader" have now been combined into one service. It is the custom in some traditions, such as the Greek Orthodox or Melkite Catholic, to allow tonsured altar servers to also vest in the orarion, worn crossed over the back like that of a subdeacon but with the ends hanging parallel in front. Among the Russians, however, the orarion is never worn by servers, but only by duly ordained subeacons and deacons.

Before vesting, the server must fold his sticharion and bring it to the priest for him to bless. The priest blesses and lays his hand on the folded sticharion. The server kisses the priest's hand and then withdraws to vest. Any server who has not been tonsured must remove the sticharion when he receives Holy Communion, because only tonsured Readers may do this while vested in the sticharion. Before unvesting at the end of the service, the server must receive the priest's blessing.

The minimum age varies by local circumstance, but boys must be mature enough to carry out their duties without disrupting the sanctity of the altar. Although it is common in North America for boys to act as altar servers, in some places this practice is virtually unknown and these duties are always carried out by adult men. In other places where altar servers are normally boys, adult men will not vest if called upon to serve. In yet other places, boys are not permitted to serve in the Altar on reaching their teens on the grounds that the young man is no longer innocent enough to serve in the altar.

Altar servers, regardless of age, are subject to all the normal restrictions for those not of higher clerical position. Anyone who is bleeding, or has an open sore, is not permitted to enter the altar. They may not touch the altar table or anything on it under any circumstances, nor the prothesis without a blessing. They may not touch the sacred vessels, the chalice and diskos (paten) at any time. They may not stand directly in front of the altar table or pass between the front of it and the iconostasis, but must cross between the altar and the High Place if they need to move to the opposite side.

Women may not serve in the altar except in women's monasteries. In that case they do not receive the clerical tonsure (though they must be tonsured nuns), and do not vest in the sticharion, but wear their normal religious habit for attending services, and serve at a certain distance from the actual altar table. Normally, only older nuns may serve in the altar; but the Hegumenia (Abbess) is permitted to enter even if she is younger.

Other Churches

In lower Anglican churches and in the Methodist Church, all who serve in the above positions are called acolytes.

In Anglo-Catholic and some Episcopal Churches however, the vast majority of roles associated with an Altar server are the same as those in the Catholic Church, and the same titles for each individual role are retained from Catholic tradition - mostly restored during the Oxford Movement in the 19th century.


External links

* [ of Russian Orthodox bishop surrounded by servers]
* "Confessions of an Altarboy" -Article by Matt Kindelmann

Latin Rite Catholic

* [ Vilnius Šv. Kryžiaus Atradimo (Kalvarijų) church Altar servers' webpage] lt_icon
* [ Samogitian Altar servers page] lt_icon?
* ['s Online Altar Server Tutorial with Video and Guides (1962 Roman Missal)]
* [ Altar Server Guide]
* [ Another Altar Server Manual]

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