On the Ministry of Acolyte
On January 31st, the Feast of St. John Bosco, six of my classmates at Theological College and I were instituted as acolytes while another six seminarians, including Charlottesville’s own Michael Anctil, were instituted as lectors. The institution of ministries mass was celebrated by the Most Reverend John Oliver Barres, Bishop of Rockville Centre, New York, who is himself an alum of Theological College. I greatly looked forward to this day with much anticipation and am very grateful and blessed to have been instituted as an acolyte. I wish now to share a little of my meandering and somewhat disjointed reflections about what this ministry means and how it impacts my continuing discernment of and formation for the priesthood.
The Ministry of Acolyte
The ministry of acolyte along with the ministry of lector, considered formally today as instituted ministries of the Church, remain as the modern form of the ancient minor orders reformed by Pope St. Paul VI in his 1972 motu proprio Ministeria quaedam. The minor orders consisted of the porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, and subdeacon and derived their functions from that of the major order of the deacon. While not reserved for men in formation for the priesthood, all candidates for priesthood must receive them and exercise them for a suitable period before ordination. Lector is received first and then acolyte.
The earliest clear attestations of the ministry of acolyte date to the mid third century although it most likely has its origins in the earliest days of the Church. The name derives from the Greek akolouthos meaning follower and this gives a good point to consider the role of the acolyte since the acolytes were assistants to the subdeacon, himself the assistant to the deacon. The primary duties of the acolyte were in serving the liturgy but also to bring communion to the sick, homebound, and the imprisoned. St. Tarcisius provides a good example of the acolyte in the ancient Church.
The modern acolyte continues to assist the deacon and priest (RIP subdeacon) during the liturgy and bring communion to the sick, etc., but also is now understood as the primary extraordinary minister of holy communion and may expose the blessed sacrament in extraordinary circumstances. In Ministeria quaedam, St. Paul VI summarized the ministry of acolyte as such:
As one set aside in a special way for the service of the altar, the acolyte should learn all matters concerning public divine worship and strive to grasp their inner spiritual meaning: in that way he will be able each day to offer himself entirely to God, be an example to all by his gravity and reverence in church, and have a sincere love for the Mystical Body of Christ, the people of God, especially for the weak and the sick.
In short, the acolyte, drawing close to the altar in assistance to the ministerial priesthood, serves in a unique and privileged position as a servant of the Eucharistic Lord and as a bearer of him to the people of God through the most blessed sacrament.
Acolytes for the Third Millennium
As a friend of mine pointed out to me, historically the conferral of minor orders was celebrated on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, aka Candlemas, on February 2nd, but we received them on the Feast of St. John Bosco, who Pope Pius XI called “Father and Teacher of Youth.” I think that, while it would have been very nice to receive acolyte on Candlemas, perhaps the Feast of John Bosco is somehow more fitting for this day and age. What does God in his providence wish to teach us in this moment? It perhaps reminds us of how in an increasingly secularized world, all Christians must go after the lost sheep of Israel. And moreover, the example of Don Bosco reminds us how we must be particularly attentive to the spiritual needs of the youth who so often lack anyone to share the faith with them. As men in formation for the priesthood we must already seek a particular keenness for the lost and marginalized. This points towards the ongoing reflection and journey of understanding for my classmates and I as we seek to serve the Lord as the Church has asked of us.
My Meanderings on the Rite of Installation of Acolyte
After the deacon called us forward, my classmates and I stood in front of the altar as the bishop instructed us on our ministry wherein two lines really stood out to me. First, “Because you are specially called to this ministry, you should strive to live more fully by the Lord’s Sacrifice and to be molded more perfectly in its likeness.” We do not have any right or privilege to what holy mother Church has called us to; therefore, we must act worthily of this privilege. It has been given to me, but is not mine. I cannot lay claim. I am not worthy. It is gift!
Furthermore, in this ministry, I am now being further conformed to the priesthood of Christ Jesus! First as a lector and now as an acolyte, I am in some real way participating in the priesthood of Christ albeit in a lesser (nonontological) way than the ministerial priesthood. I once read an old priest’s reflection on the minor orders wherein he noted that just as Christ is the perfect priest and thus model for all priests, so too, does this extend to the deacon and even to the minor orders all the way to the lowly porter. It may seem odd at first to think of Christ the porter or Christ the acolyte, but certainly it is fitting as all these functions emanate from his priesthood and we can see Christ humbly model them for us. For example, acolytes normally carry the candles in the liturgy: Christ carries the light into the world. Acolytes assist in preparing the necessities for the liturgy: Christ himself prepared his sacrifice according to his holy will. Acolytes bring communion to the sick and imprisoned: Christ of course gives us himself in the Eucharist. Thus, in this ministry, the acolyte is invited to imitate and encounter Christ in a new way.
Another line from the instructions being read by the bishop stood out to me in that moment. This second one had to do with the Church:
In performing your ministry bear in mind that, as you share the one bread with your brothers and sisters, so you form one Body with them. Show a sincere love for Christ’s Mystical Body, God’s holy people, and especially for the weak and the sick. Be obedient to the commandment which the Lord gave to his Apostles at the Last Supper: “Love one another as I also have loved you.”
We are being called in this moment to serve the Church in a particular new way and with this new function and mission also are being called to encounter the Church, the liturgy, ourselves, and above all else Jesus in a new way, but not in an isolated sense, rather always in the context of the body of Christ, which is to say, through the service to others inherent to the ministry.
Now the deacon gestures to us to kneel and the bishop prays over us with his arms extended saying:
God of mercy, through your only Son you entrusted the bread of life to your Church. Bless our brothers who have been chosen for the ministry of acolyte. Grant that they be faithful in service of your altar and in giving to others the Bread of Life; may they grow always in faith and love and so build up your Church. Through Christ our Lord.
We are reminded that we are called to serve an ancient liturgy given to the Apostles by Christ himself. Our liturgical traditions are millennia old faithfully handed down through the ages and now I am to enter so much more deeply into it! What an honor and dare I say, with full reverence of course, what a delight it is to study, serve, and carry on these venerable traditions and customs, to be a coheir of such a heritage.
Now comes the truly exciting part as we individually kneel in front of the bishop. He gives us the patten (with the hosts to be consecrated shortly thereafter) and prays over us: “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.” As he said this, the profundity of the moment hit me so that I almost forgot where I was. We respond amen to signify our acceptance of the ministry and our resolve to carry it out to the best of our abilities. And that’s how an acolyte is made. A perhaps short and unassuming rite that actually unveils a rich theology of the ministry and the life of the Church, not just liturgical, but also pastoral as the lives of my classmates and I are in a radical new way conformed to serving the Eucharistic Lord.
The next morning after the installation mass, Fr. Brian, who had come up for the installation mass, celebrated mass for all the Richmond seminarians at Theological College and St. John Paul II. Michael and I served in our new ministries for the first time as such. I found it especially joyful to serve this first mass with my diocesan brothers and our vocation director because the diocesan priest is called serve a particular people in a particular place, namely, the diocese. Whenever we gather as diocesan brothers we are reminded of this fundamental aspect of our vocation and so we gather regularly to pray for and be spiritually united with our people despite the physical absence. Even more so in such masses, we are reminded of our identity and vocation, how the Lord has brought us all together in his service, and the mission he is preparing us for.