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This article is about religious acolytes. For other uses, see Acolytes (disambiguation).

In some Christian churches, an acolyte is one who wishes to attain clergyhood. More generally, the term can refer to anyone who performs ceremonial duties such as lighting altar-candles.

Roman Catholicism

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.

After the reforms of the minor orders in 1972, the acolyte survived but became a lay ministry 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. An instituted acolyte, though, does have some special faculties: he is a permanent extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and can also be entrusted with celebrating Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

The term acolyte may also refer to ordinary non-instituted altar servers, with both of those terms being preferable to the term altar boy. One reason why the phrase altar boy has ceased to be standard is that recently girls can also serve in this capacity. Also, in some parishes adults will often serve in this capacity as well.

Anglican Tradition

In Anglican churches such as The Episcopal Church in the US or The Church of England, altar servers are called acolytes and can be of any gender or age (usually 10 and up).

An acolyte can assist in worship by carrying a processional cross, lighting candles, holding the Gospel book, holding candles or "torches", assisting a deacon or priest set up and clean up at the altar, swing incense or carry the incense boat, hand the offering plates to ushers, and many other tasks as seen fit by the priest or acolyte warden.

The acolytes wear robes that differentiate them from the clergy, the lay Eucharistic ministers, or the choir, although they may appear quite similarly dressed. These robes can be called albs, cassocks, cottas or a combination of those items. The robe belt worn by many is called a cincture, and frequently reflects the color of the liturgical seasons. It is generally a twisted rope with knots on the ends and is secured around the waist. Wearing crosses or other special pins or symbols is the prerogative of the individual church.

Usually the acolytes are ranked as they develop their abilities to serve - Trainees, Junior Acolytes, Senior Acolytes and Acolyte of Merit.

Eastern Orthodoxy

The Eastern Orthodox Church no longer possesses an exact equivalent for this office. At one time there was a rank of minor clergy called the taper-bearer responsible for bearing lights during processions and liturgical entrances. However, this rank has long ago been subsumed by that of the reader and the service for the ordination of a reader mentions both functions. The functions of an acolyte or taper-bearer are therefore carried out by readers, subdeacons, or by unordained men or boys.


Acolyte comes up in various fantasy books.

  • Pendragon - In the Pendragon series by D.J.MacHale, an Acolyte is a person who assists the Travelers from their home territories by supplying clothes and other useful items. They also are responsible for the journals of the Traveler from that Territory. After the Travelers lost at Veelox, the Acolytes gained the ability to travel, but to do so weakens the Flumes. The Flume on Eelong collapsed due the Second Earth Acolytes, Mark and Courtney, using the Flume.


  • John N. Wall. A Dictionary for Episcopalians. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000.
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