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May 19, 2000 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Altar servers personify our call to serve the Lord

Servers share a lot in common with deacons

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

Every Sunday, we see them: young boys and girls, serving at the altar.

But what history gave us the ministry of altar servers? That's the question a reader sent to The Compass recently.

Altar serving is one expression of the universal call of each baptized person to reveal Christ to others -- in this case, in the liturgy of the Mass. "Having become a member of the Church, the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us. From now on, he is called to be subject to others, to serve them in the communion of the Church ..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1269).

Service to others is the backbone of the ministry of altar servers, which dates back to the second century. It grew out of the work of deacons. (Deacons were instituted by the Apostles for the ministry of service, see Acts 6:1-6.)

Altar servers were originally called "acolytes," from the Greek work akolouthos, meaning "one who follows." At times, altar servers are still called acolytes, and they do perform the duties of an acolyte. But today the term "acolyte" correctly refers to young men who have been formally instituted into altar service. Acolytes are most often a transitional stage in Holy Orders, which includes transitional deacons, followed by ordination to the priesthood. (Jim Lucas, who will be ordained to the priesthood this summer, is currently a transitional deacon.)

The oldest church document that refers to acolytes is a letter by Pope Cornelius, written in 251 AD, which states that there were 42 acolytes in Rome at the time. These acolytes were subject to the deacons of the region (of which there were seven).

Pope Paul V restored the order of the permanent diaconate in 1973. In doing so, he pointed out that the deacon in the early church was "at the disposal of the bishop" to "serve the whole people of God and take care of the sick and the poor." He was also "entrusted with the mission of taking the holy Eucharist to the sick confined to their homes, of conferring baptism, and attending to the preaching of the Word of God."

In this work, acolytes, who also assisted the bishop, assisted the deacon. Records from the Council of Nicea in 325 show acolytes were present as attendants to the bishops.

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that various documents from the fifth through the ninth centuries outline the duties of the acolytes: serving both the Pope and the bishops; assisting regional deacons with their various duties; serving at the local churches. Service to the Pope included serving at Mass, but also being messengers, distributing alms, and carrying the Eucharist from the Pope's Mass to the priests in the outlying churches.

The order of deacons changed with time and eventually became largely a transitional stage to the priesthood. Vatican II called for the reinstitution of the permanent diaconate as a ministry of service in 1964 (see Lumen Gentium, art. 19). Pope Paul VI did so in 1973.

In the same way, the role of acolyte - who served the deacons - also evolved. As the liturgical rites became more complex, the need for more ministers of the altar grew. Altar servers, non-ordained boys, began to assist acolytes.

It is likely that altar servers developed naturally out of the ministry of acolytes - since, at the earliest point, acolytes were not formally ordained, but merely blessed by the pope during Mass. Today, their pastors bless altar servers. (The bishop or their religious superior must institute acolytes.)

Still, the service of altar boys was often viewed as preparation for priesthood. This could be seen in the garb commonly worn by servers until after Vatican II: the cassock and surplice, which are traditional attire of priests.

Today, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, says the alb is the preferred vestment of the altar server (no. 298). This is the "sacred vestment common to all ministers of every rank. It is full length and of white or off-white color representing the rank of the baptized ("Guidelines for Liturgical Ministry," Diocese of Green Bay). The alb reminds us of our baptismal garment, the robe that clothed us for our life in Christ.

In 1994, the Vatican determined that the Code of Canon Law included altar service in the ministry of the laity, both men and women. Accordingly, in June 1994, the U.S. Bishops approved women and girls serving at the altar, at the discretion of local bishops.

Today, altar servers perform a variety of liturgical functions. The U.S. Bishops have said that "the role of server is integral to the normal celebration of the Mass," and that at least one server must be present to assist the priest - two on Sundays.

But, we must remember the real reason for acolytes and altar servers - the reason for their service: to show Christ to others. "Altar service should evoke the humble gesture of Jesus at the Last Supper, stooping to wash the feet of his disciples." (Fr. Robert Duggan, Church, Winter, 1998).

This call to service is a ministry that belongs to all the laity, since by baptism, we were incorporated into Christ and made sharers in his priestly, prophetic and kingly office (CCC. no. 897).

(Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Church; Ad Pascendum by Paul VI; Origins; National Conference of the Catholic Bishops web site; and the Diocese of Green Bay Worship Office.)

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