Roles of Instituted Acolyte at Mass

Date: February 27, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: I write to inquire regarding the role of an instituted acolyte and that of a deacon within the celebration of the liturgy. Is there any difference between their ministries in terms of their proper function during the Mass? I observed here in our diocese that those who are already in their pre-diaconal years, which I believe they have been instituted as an acolyte, (1) carry the Book of the Gospels during the processional in the absence of a deacon even if there's a lector present and (2) incense the priest at the preparation of the gifts. Are these two observations valid in the performance of their function in the liturgy? Or are they "pre-empting" their role as deacons? -- P.H.B., Naga, Camarines Sur province, Philippines

Answer: First, I think it is necessary to clarify the nature of the ministry involved. Our reader seems to refer to instituted acolytes who are candidates for sacred orders. This, however, is not necessarily the case.

The instituted acolyte is a distinct lay ministry, with its own proper liturgical roles, and which Pope Francis has recently also opened up to women. There is no difference, insofar as liturgical functions, between an instituted acolyte destined for sacred orders and one who is not so destined.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal describes the liturgical functions of the instituted acolyte. Since this text was published before Pope Francis’ recent changes, the norms presume the acolyte will be male. These functions are:

“98. 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 (cf. nos. 187-193), which he must carry out in person.

“187. The functions that the acolyte may carry out are of various kinds and several may occur at the same moment. Hence, it is desirable that these duties be suitably distributed among several acolytes. If, in fact, only one acolyte is present, he should perform the more important duties while the rest are to be distributed among several ministers.

“The Introductory Rites

“188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, however, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it away in a dignified place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.

“189. Through the entire celebration, it is for the acolyte to approach the Priest or the Deacon, whenever necessary, in order to present the book to them and to assist them in any other way required. Thus it is appropriate that, in so far as possible, the acolyte should occupy a place from which he can easily carry out his ministry either at the chair or at the altar.

“The Liturgy of the Eucharist

“190. In the absence of a Deacon, after the Universal Prayer and while the Priest remains at the chair, the acolyte places the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal on the altar. Then, if necessary, the acolyte assists the Priest in receiving the gifts of the people and, if appropriate, brings the bread and wine to the altar and hands them to the Priest. If incense is being used, the acolyte presents the thurible to the Priest and assists him while he incenses the offerings, the cross, and the altar. Then the acolyte incenses the Priest and the people.

“191. A duly instituted acolyte, as an extraordinary minister, may, if necessary, assist the Priest in distributing Communion to the people. If Communion is given under both kinds, in the absence of a Deacon, the acolyte administers the chalice to the communicants or holds the chalice if Communion is given by intinction.

“192. Likewise, after the distribution of Communion is complete, a duly instituted acolyte helps the Priest or Deacon to purify and arrange the sacred vessels. In the absence of a Deacon, a duly instituted acolyte carries the sacred vessels to the credence table and there purifies them, wipes them, and arranges them as usual.

“193. After the celebration of Mass, the acolyte and other ministers return together with the Deacon and the Priest in procession to the sacristy, in the same manner and in the same order in which they entered.”

In the examples given by our correspondent, the acolyte carried the Book of the Gospels. According to the GIRM, this would properly be the function of an instituted lector. To wit:

“194. In the procession to the altar, in the absence of a Deacon, the reader, wearing approved attire, may carry the Book of the Gospels, slightly elevated. In that case, the reader walks in front of the Priest but otherwise walks along with the other ministers.

“195. Upon reaching the altar, the reader makes a profound bow with the others. If he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he approaches the altar and places the Book of the Gospels upon it. Then the reader takes his own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers.”

However, it must be remembered that the most common practice is to receive institution as lector before becoming an instituted acolyte. Hence, if there are no other instituted lectors present, then this task would naturally fall upon him or her.

Another, quite beautiful description of the functions of an acolyte is given in the printed “homily” which forms part of the Rite of Institution:

“Dear child in Christ, as a person chosen for the ministry of acolyte, you will have a special role in the Church's ministry. The summit and source of the Church's life is the Eucharist, which builds up the Christian community and makes it grow. It is your responsibility to assist priests and deacons in carrying out their ministry, and as extraordinary ministers to give holy communion to the faithful at the liturgy and to the sick. 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. You should seek to understand the deep spiritual meaning of what you do, so that you may offer yourself daily to God as a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to him through Jesus Christ.

“In performing your ministry bear in mind that, as you share 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.’”

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.


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