A few days ago the Aleteia blog ran an article about a group of deacon candidates who were being installed as “acolytes”. This reminded me of a piece we ran a couple of years ago about the “minor orders” and their role in priestly formation.
Back then, I wrote:
During formation, the candidate would go through the four minor orders — porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. The progression through the minor orders was a bit like gaining rank in the military, each of them brought the candidate new responsibilities.
I went on to point out that two of the orders — lector and acolyte — are still used today in formation for both priests and deacons. What I failed to do was to explain these to important offices.
You may already be familiar with lectors — those who read a portion of the scriptures at Mass — but it may surprise you to learn that this can be a formally instituted ministry. The Code of Canon law (the law which governs the Church) states:
Can. 1035 §1 Before anyone may be promoted to the diaconate, whether permanent or transitory, he must have received the ministries of lector and acolyte, and have exercised them for an appropriate time.
§2 Between the conferring of the ministry of acolyte and the diaconate there is to be an interval of at least six months.
These ministries are important steps on the way to ordination as a deacon which, in
turn, is an important step on the way to priestly ordination.
Lectors, as you would expect, are tasked with reading the scriptures at Mass. This practice goes back to the Jewish church where the scriptures were read as a matter of course in worship. In the early days of the church, it was necessary to find someone who had sufficient education to be able to read. The origins of the office are found there.
Candidates for the priesthood or deaconate are installed as lectors (typically) by a bishop. In a lector’s installation, he is given a lectionary or book of Gospels while the bishop says, “Take this book of holy Scripture and be faithful in handing on the word of God, so that it may grow strong in the hearts of his people.”
There are lay lectors as well, of course. Men and women who have been identified as fit for this service to the church. They are not instituted by a bishop, but rather trained at the local parish. They fill the role of lector, but are not formally installed in the ministry.
The role of the acolyte is somewhat more complicated and represents a more technical level of service during the Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal — the book which outlines all of the rules and rubrics for Mass– explains the role of the acolyte this way:
The acolyte is instituted for service at the altar and to assist the Priest and Deacon. It is his place principally to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if necessary, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful as an extraordinary minister. In the ministry of the altar, the acolyte has his own proper functions, which he must carry out in person.
It goes on to list specific duties including carrying the thurible if necessary and purifying the vessels used for the Eucharist. There’s a nice summary of the duties at CatholicAcolyte.com.
Acolytes are instituted by a bishop, who places the sacred vessels in the hands of the candidate and says “Take this vessel with bread for the celebration of the eucharist. Make your life worthy of your service at the table of the Lord and of his Church.”
People often express surprise at how long the process of priestly formation takes. To someone outside of the Catholic church it can seem a long road, indeed. Yet there are milestones as the young men move through their training and find themselves growing in both skill and dedication. Lector and acolyte are two of the more visible milestones and it is worth remembering that each plays an important role in both formation and service to the people of God.