Altar server

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A Czech altar server Biskupske sveceni Z. Wasserbauer 2018-05-19 pruvod 17 ,,Lahvoun".jpg
A Czech altar server

An altar server is a lay assistant to a member of the clergy during a Christian liturgy. An altar server attends to supporting tasks at the altar such as fetching and carrying, ringing the altar bell, among other things. If young, the server is commonly called an altar boy or altar girl. In some Christian denominations, altar servers are known as acolytes. [1]

In religious organizations, the laity consists of all members who are not part of the clergy, usually including any non-ordained members of religious institutes, e.g. a nun or lay brother.

Clergy formal leaders within established religions

Clergy are formal leaders within established religions. Their roles and functions vary in different religious traditions, but usually involve presiding over specific rituals and teaching their religion's doctrines and practices. Some of the terms used for individual clergy are clergyman, clergywoman, and churchman. Less common terms are churchwoman and clergyperson, while cleric and clerk in holy orders both have a long history but are rarely used.

Christian liturgy is a pattern for worship used by a Christian congregation or denomination on a regular basis. Although the term liturgy is used to mean public worship in general, the Byzantine Rite uses the term "Divine Liturgy" to denote the Eucharistic service.


Latin Church

50 altar servers, during a celebration of a 50-year-old church, Gennep, Netherlands, September 2004. Misdienaar.jpg
50 altar servers, during a celebration of a 50-year-old church, Gennep, Netherlands, September 2004.

While the function of altar server is commonly associated with children, it can be and is carried out by people of any age or dignity. [2]

"Mass should not be celebrated without a minister, or at least one of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause." [3]

The term "acolyte"

As in other churches, [4] [5] altar servers are sometimes called acolytes in the Latin Church. [6] [7] Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Saint Tarcisius as "presumably an acolyte, that is, an altar server". [8] However, within the Latin Church, the term "acolyte" is also used in a more restricted sense, often specified as "instituted acolyte", [9] to mean an adult man who has received the instituted ministry of that name. [10] Acolytes in this narrower sense are not necessarily preparing for ordination as deacons and priests. [11] They are authorized to carry out some functions, in particular that of cleansing the Eucharistic vessels, that are not entrusted to ordinary servers. [12] Those who are to be ordained to the diaconate must be instituted as acolytes at least six months previously. [13] This ministry was long classified in the Latin Church as a minor order, as by the Council of Trent. [14] [15] The General Instruction of the Roman Missal , which does not use the term "server" and instead speaks of altar servers generically among "other ministers", treats in detail of the functions of the "acolyte", often specifying "instituted acolyte". [16]

Latin Church Automonous particular church making up of most of the Western world Catholics

The Latin Church, also known as the Western Church or the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest particular church sui iuris of the Catholic Church, employing the Latin liturgical rites. It is one of 24 such churches, the 23 others forming the Eastern Catholic Churches. It is headed by the Bishop of Rome, the pope – traditionally also called the Patriarch of the West – with his cathedra in this role at the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Italy. The Latin Church traces its history to the earliest days of Christianity through its direct leadership under the Holy See, founded by Peter and Paul, according to Catholic tradition.

Pope Benedict XVI 265th pope of the Catholic Church

Pope Benedict XVI is a retired prelate of the Catholic Church who served as head of the Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 2005 until his resignation in 2013. Benedict's election as pope occurred in the 2005 papal conclave that followed the death of Pope John Paul II. Benedict chose to be known by the title "pope emeritus" upon his resignation.

Tarcisius Child saint

Tarsicius or Tarcisius was a martyr of the early Christian church who lived in the 3rd century. The little that is known about him comes from a metrical inscription by Pope Damasus I, who was pope in the second half of the 4th century.

Female altar servers

Altar servers with Pope John Paul II JP2withaltargirls.jpg
Altar servers with Pope John Paul II

The 1983 Code of Canon Law altered the juridical situation: without distinguishing between male and female, it declared: "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." [17] On 30 June 1992, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts issued an authentic interpretation of that canon declaring that service of the altar is one of the "other functions" open to lay persons in general, without distinguishing between male and female. [18]

Reader (liturgy) a person who can read aloud the bible during catholic liturgy

In some Christian churches, a reader is responsible for reading aloud excerpts of scripture at a liturgy. In early Christian times the reader was of particular value due to the rarity of literacy.

The Christian cantor or chanter or a person who sings solo verses or passages to which the choir or congregation responds. Similarly in Judaism, a cantor is one who sings and leads people in prayer in a Jewish religious service, and may be called hazzan. A Cantor in Reform and Conservative Judaism is an ordained clergy, similar to that of an ordained rabbi, if the cantor has gone through seminary training or been certified as a "Cantor" from an endorsed seminary. "Cantor" is used as a translation of equivalent terms in other languages, such as for the leader of singing on a traditional Keral snake boat, a Chundan Vallam.

In reference to this authentic interpretation, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments sent on 15 March 1994 a circular letter to presidents of episcopal conferences, clarifying that the canon in question is only of permissive character. It does not require the use of female altar servers. It is thus for each diocesan bishop to decide whether to allow them in his diocese. [19] A later document, from 2001, states that, even if a bishop permits female altar servers, the priest in charge of a church in that diocese is not obliged to recruit them, since nobody, male or female, has a right to become an altar server. The document also states that "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar". [20]

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is the congregation of the Roman Curia that handles most affairs relating to liturgical practices of the Latin Church as distinct from the Eastern Catholic Churches and also some technical matters relating to the Sacraments. Its functions were originally exercised by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, set up in January 1588 by Pope Sixtus V.

An episcopal conference, sometimes called a conference of bishops, is an official assembly of the bishops of the Catholic Church in a given territory. Episcopal conferences have long existed as informal entities. The first assembly of bishops to meet regularly, with its own legal structure and ecclesial leadership function, is the Swiss Bishops' Conference, which was founded in 1863. More than forty episcopal conferences existed before the Second Vatican Council. Their status was confirmed by the Second Vatican Council and further defined by Pope Paul VI's 1966 motu proprio, Ecclesiae sanctae.

As priests in charge of churches are not obliged to avail tof a diocesan bishop's permission in this matter, those belonging to traditionalist Catholic groups such as the FSSP and the Institute of Christ the King and some other priests do not.

In the United States the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska became in 2006 the only diocese in the country that did not allow females to be altar servers, [21] after the only other holdout ended its prohibition on female altar servers. [22] The cathedral of the Diocese of Phoenix announced in August 2011 that girls would no longer be allowed to altar serve, [23] but that did not concern the whole diocese.

Duties at Mass

A thurifer Priest or seminarian with thurible.jpg
A thurifer

In the absence of instituted acolytes, some of their functions at Mass may be carried out by altar servers. [24]

Servers tasked with ringing bells at Mass in an Indonesian church. IndonesianAltarBoy.jpg
Servers tasked with ringing bells at Mass in an Indonesian church.


The vestment common to all ordained and instituted ministers of whatever rank is an alb, which is to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless the alb is made to fit without cincture. [43] Acolytes, readers and other lay ministers (such as altar servers) may wear either an alb or other appropriate attire as determined by the local episcopal conference. [44] All who wear an alb should use a cincture and an amice, unless the form of the alb makes these unnecessary. [45]

Servers often wear cassock and surplice, with black and red being the most common colors for a server's cassock. [46]

Byzantine Rite

Ukrainian Catholic bishop and priests during the Divine Liturgy, with altar servers in front (note the crossed oraria the servers are wearing). Me in church with bishop.jpg
Ukrainian Catholic bishop and priests during the Divine Liturgy, with altar servers in front (note the crossed oraria the servers are wearing).

In the Byzantine Rite, 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 priest 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 not usually worn by servers, but only by duly ordained subdeacons and deacons, with the exception that laymen who are blessed to perform some of the functions of subdeacons may sometimes be blessed to wear the orar.

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 the Cross on the vestment, and then withdraws to vest. Any server who has not been tonsured must remove the sticharion when he receives Holy Communion, because communicants receive the Mysteries according to their order within the Church (so tonsured clergy vest while laymen remove their vestments). Before divesting 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.

In general, women do 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. A few parishes have begun to use women as altar servers.

Other churches

In many Anglican churches, [47] and Lutheran churches, [48] 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.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Subdeacon is a title used in various branches of Christianity.

Acolyte profession

An acolyte is an assistant or follower assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. In many Christian denominations, an acolyte is anyone performing ceremonial duties such as lighting altar candles. In others, the term is used for one who has been inducted into a particular liturgical ministry, even when not performing those duties.

Gospel Book shorter collection of Bible verses divided after the Sundays and holidays of the lithurgical calendar

The Gospel Book, Evangelion, or Book of the Gospels is a codex or bound volume containing one or more of the four Gospels of the Christian New Testament – normally all four – centering on the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the roots of the Christian faith. The term is also used of the liturgical book, also called the Evangeliary, from which are read the portions of the Gospels used in the Mass and other services, arranged according to the order of the liturgical calendar.

Vestment clothing prescribed for Christian clergy performing specific roles

Vestments are liturgical garments and articles associated primarily with the Christian religion, especially among the Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Many other groups also make use of liturgical garments; this was a point of controversy in the Protestant Reformation and sometimes since, in particular during the Ritualist controversies in England in the 19th century.

Pontifical High Mass

In the context of the Tridentine Mass of the Catholic Church, a Pontifical High Mass, also called Solemn Pontifical Mass, is a Solemn or High Mass celebrated by a bishop using certain prescribed ceremonies. The term is also used among Anglo-Catholic Anglicans. Although in modern English the word "pontifical" is almost exclusively associated with the Pope, any bishop may be properly called a pontiff. Thus, the celebrant of a Pontifical High Mass may be any bishop, and not just a pope.

Stole (vestment) long narrow cloth band worn around the neck and falling from the shoulders as part of ecclesiastical dress

The stole is a liturgical vestment of various Christian denominations. It consists of a band of colored cloth, formerly usually of silk, about seven and a half to nine feet long and three to four inches wide, whose ends may be straight or may broaden out. The center of the stole is worn around the back of the neck and the two ends hang down parallel to each other in front, either attached to each other or hanging loose. The stole is almost always decorated in some way, usually with a cross or some other significant religious design. It is often decorated with contrasting galloons and fringe is usually applied to the ends of the stole following Numbers 15:38-39. A piece of white linen or lace may be stitched onto the back of the collar as a sweat guard, which can be replaced more cheaply than the stole itself.

Thurible metal censer suspended from chains, in which incense is burned during worship services

A thurible is a metal censer suspended from chains, in which incense is burned during worship services. It is used in Christian churches including the Roman Catholic, Maronite Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Oriental Orthodox, as well as in some Lutheran, Old Catholic, United Methodist, Reformed, Presbyterian Church USA, Anglican churches. In Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, the altar server who carries the thurible is called the thurifer. The practice is rooted in the earlier traditions of Judaism in the time of the Second Jewish Temple.

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Altar bell

In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, Lutheranism, Methodism and Anglicanism, an altar or sanctus bell is typically a small hand-held bell or set of bells. The primary reason for the use of such bells is to create a joyful noise to the Lord as a way to give thanks for the miracle taking place atop the altar. An ancillary function of the bells is to focus the attention of those attending the Mass that a supernatural event is taking place on the altar. Such bells are also commonly referred to as the Mass bell, sacring bell, Sacryn bell, saints' bell, sance-bell, or sanctus bell. and are kept on the credence table or some other convenient location within the sanctuary.

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  1. Eaton, Robert (2001). How to Motivate, Train and Nurture Acolytes: Five Workshops and Other Resources. Church Publishing, Inc. p. 46. ISBN   9780819224569. "Server" and "Acolyte" are often interchangeable words.
  2. Leonard of Port Maurice (1970). The Hidden Treasure: Holy Mass. TAN Books. ISBN   9781618905314.
  3. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , 254; cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 906.
  4. Roger Speer Jr., Sharon Ely Pearson, I Serve at God's Altar: The Ministry of Acolytes (Church Publishing 2018)
  5. Robert Eaton, How to Motivate, Train and Nurture Acolytes (Church Publishing 2001), p. 46
  6. David Philippart, Serve God with Gladness: A Manual for Servers (Liturgy Training Publications 1998), p. 106
  7. St. Peter Server Training Glossary
  8. Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 4 August 2010
  9. Laughlin, Corinna; Riley, Kenneth A.; Turner, Paul (2014). Guide for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. LiturgyTrainingPublications. p. 57. ISBN   9781616711283.
  10. Code of Canon Law, canon 230
  11. Six lay men installed as acolytes in Spokane (Catholic News Service, 14 December 2018)
  12. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 192
  13. Code of Canon Law, canon 1035 §2
  14. Council of Trent, session XXIII
  15. J. Waterworth, ed. (1848), The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, pp. 170−192
  16. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 98, 100, 162, 191, 192, 247, 249, 279, 284
  17. Code of Canon Law, canon 230 §2
  18. Authentic interpretation of canon 230 §2
  19. Vatican Communication on Female Altar Servers
  20. "The Catholic Liturgical Library".
  21. " - Neb. diocese is lone U.S. holdout on allowing altar girls".
  22. "Neb. diocese is lone U.S. holdout on allowing altar girls". USA Today. 22 March 2006. Archived from the original on 9 November 2017. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  23. Clancy, Michael. "Phoenix diocese cathedral won't allow girl altar servers". The Arizona Republic. The Arizona Republic. Archived from the original on 2 November 2018. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  24. "General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 100" (PDF).
  25. "Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral Introduction (Catholic Truth Society 2005), p. 19" (PDF).
  26. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , no. 120
  27. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 132
  28. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , nos. 133, 175
  29. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , nos. 139, 178
  30. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , no. 208
  31. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , nos. 73, 140
  32. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , no. 142
  33. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , nos. 144, 178
  34. General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes no reference to a separate incensing of concelebrants (cf. Edward McNamara, "Incensing the Congregation").
  35. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , no. 145
  36. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , no. 150
  37. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , nos. 154, 181
  38. "Altar Boy Handbook of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Gainesville, Virginia (2009), p. 16" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-07-14.
  39. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , no. 118
  40. Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum, 93
  41. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , no. 118
  42. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 169
  43. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , 336
  44. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , 339
  45. General Instruction of the Roman Missal , 119
  46. Edward McNamara "Colors of Cassocks and Altar Cloths"
  47. "Acolyte". Episcopal Church. 22 May 2012. Retrieved 28 October 2017.
  48. "Acolytes and deacons". Archived from the original on 28 October 2017. Retrieved 28 October 2017.