Friday, February 09, 2007

My "Image and Likeness" Inches Closer to the Priesthood

My twin brother Matt--a seminarian at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD (and yes, I must always qualify his name in that way)--recently received the Ministry of Acolyte from the Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, Th.D., bishop of the Diocese of Portland, ME. You can go here to see a few pics of the event.

I'd imagine that most people these days don't put a lot of stock in someone becoming an acolyte, if they know what an "acolyte" is at all. But, to a seminarian, being instituted an acolyte brings him one small step closer to the priesthood. The following paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on the acolyate is instructive:
Until the Second Vatican Council, the acolyte was the highest of the minor orders, having as duties the lighting of the altar-candles, carrying the candles in procession, assisting the subdeacon and deacon, and the ministering of water and wine to the priest at Mass. Acolytes wore either the alb or the surplice. While acolytes did not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, they were considered part of the clergy, and were a required step on the way to Holy Orders.
In most cases, being instituted an acolyte is still something that takes place in the seminarian's training to be a priest, it's just not required anymore. Despite this, I think that the seminarian is still right in feeling that he has taken a good step in the direction of making his life one of ministering to God's people.

That few people have heard of this ministry is no surprise. The Wikipedia article goes on to say:
After the reforms of the minor orders in 1972, the acolyte survived but became one of two lay ministries (along with lector) instead of an order, with its conferring rite renamed from ordination to institution to emphasize this. It was still confined to men alone but was de jure now open to all men, even those not going into seminary. However, since altar servers can do just about anything an acolyte can do, very few men outside of seminary are formally instituted.
However, there are a few designations that set the acolyte apart, and I think they are worthwhile in preparing the seminarian for when God will "consecrate" him, or set him apart for the work of shepherding souls (cf. Exo 28:41). More from our current article:
An instituted acolyte, though, does have some special faculties: he is a permanent extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and can also be entrusted with celebrating Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He is the only lay minister who can do the purifications of the vessels at Mass. He is given a priority to lead blessing ceremonies: "An acolyte or reader who by formal institution has this special office in the Church is rightly preferred over another layperson as the minister designated a the discretion of the local Ordinary to impart certain blessings." (Book of Blessings, Introduction, n. 18). He has priority to lead Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, if a deacon is absent: "Those to be chosen first by the pastor are readers and acolytes who have been duly instituted for the service of the altar and the word of God. If there are no such instituted ministers available, other laypersons, men and women, may be appointed;" (Directions for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, 1988, n. 30).

Indult Catholic societies such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter are permitted to ordain seminarians to minor orders, including the acolytate.
I for one am really proud of him, and I'm glad that my dad got to make the trip to Baltimore to support him. I hope that you all will support him as well as he makes the journey towards celibacy for the sake of the kingdom (cf. Mt 19:12). Please Lord, "let him receive it."

For more on the ministry of acolyte, see the following links: Pax Christi,


  1. Eeeee, Bishop!! :D

  2. Actually, it is still required for seminarians to receive the instituted ministries of acolyte and lector prior to their ordination to the transitional diaconate (see Canons 1035 and 1050).

    Since an altar server and commissioned extraordinary minister of holy communion can fulfill many of the roles of an acolyte, it's optional for lay men (as it is reserved to men alone) to receive this formal institution prior to serving in these roles. And, in fact, since the Vatican II reforms limited the reception of this ministry to men alone, most dioceses do not make use of this ministry other than that their seminarians are instituted into it.

    All this means, is that in practice, in most places, acolyte remains a "step" to the priesthood as it would have been considered before Vatican II as a minor order. This, by the way, is largely the reason why these two ministries are conferred on seminarians in their seminary rather than in their home diocese--so as to not confuse the lay faithful (all of whom are commissioned lectors and commissioned extraordinary ministers of holy communion). Of course, there some notable exceptions in the US: some dioceses do use this formal ministry outside of their seminarians.

    Some months ago, the Cardinal Arinze, acting on orders from the Pope himself, refused the extension of an indult the US Church had been operating on for a number of years which allowed commissioned extraordinary ministers of holy communion to purify the vessels. Since the indult is no longer in effect, commissioned extraordinary ministers of holy communion should no longer be purifying the sacred vessels.

    However, the law itself permits the instituted acolyte to assist in purifying the vessels (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 279). So I personally wonder if we will see more lay men receiving this formal ministry at the request of local bishops in order to assist their priests in purifying the vessels.


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