By Father Anthony Marques, Special to The Catholic Virginian

“Make your life worthy of your service at the table of the Lord.” With these words, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo instituted 19 men in the ministry of acolyte on May 12 at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Richmond. (Another will be instituted in June.)

For these men, the event marked a final step in their preparation for ordination as permanent deacons, which will take place on October 14. The deacon candidates hail from various parishes throughout the diocese.

As a liturgical minister, the acolyte is charged with assisting the priest and deacon. This ministry includes preparing the altar, distributing Holy Communion (especially the chalice), and purifying the sacred vessels—unless a deacon is present. Whereas altar servers may carry out some of these functions on a temporary basis, the acolyte does so permanently. It is also the duty of the acolyte to train altar servers.

The acolyte is vested in an alb (the white garment symbolizing Baptism), or in a cassock and surplice (a shorter version of the alb). Furthermore, the acolyte is seated in the sanctuary of the church so that he can fulfill his ministry.

As part of the liturgical renewal mandated by Vatican Council II, Pope Blessed Paul VI decreed that the ministry of acolyte, together with that of lector, should replace the minor orders that had been received in preparation for the priesthood (porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte). The minor orders were distinguished from the major orders (subdiaconate, diaconate, and priesthood). In addition, the subdiaconate was suppressed.

In order to more clearly express their function, acolytate and lectorate were designated as “ministries” in which one is “instituted,” rather than as “orders” to which one is “ordained.” The ministries of acolyte and lector may be conferred on any baptized Catholic man, but in practice they are reserved to candidates for the diaconate and priesthood. (The minor orders and the subdiaconate still exist as part of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, which refers to the pre-conciliar form of worship.)

The ministry of acolyte will help the deacon candidates to eventually undertake the liturgical role proper to the deacon. Both now as acolytes, and later as deacons, their liturgical ministry will express what their whole lives are to be about: service to God in the Church.

According to the blessing used for the institution of acolytes, the Church prays to God that, “They may be faithful in the service of your altar and in giving the bread of life; may they grow always in faith and love and so build up your Church.”