The ministry of acolyte is an official ministry, while the term is also used in other circumstances.
At times Catholics may see the word “acolyte” used in parish bulletins or spoken by the parish priest. What does it mean?
The term, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, comes from the “Greek akolouthos; Latin sequens [meaning he who] comes, a follower, an attendant.” In the past it was exclusively part of “minor orders,” one of the stepping stones to become a priest.
The acolyte would “light the candles on the altar, carry them in procession, and during the solemn singing of the Gospel; prepare wine and water for the sacrifice of the Mass; and assist the sacred ministers at the Mass.”
In 1973 Pope Paul VI abolished “minor orders” with the apostolic letter Ministeria Quaedam, but kept the role of acolyte, calling it instead a “ministry.”
The liturgical duties of an acolyte were maintained, as Pope Paul VI describes the updated role.
The acolyte is appointed in order to aid the deacon and to minister to the priest. It is his duty therefore to attend to the service of the altar and to assist the deacon and the priest in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of Mass … He may also, to the extent needed, take care of instructing other faithful who on a temporary basis are appointed to assist the priest or deacon in liturgical celebrations by carrying the missal, cross, candles, etc., or by performing other such duties. He will perform these functions more worthily if he participates in the holy Eucharist with increasingly fervent devotion, receives nourishment from it, and deepens his knowledge about it.
There are a few other duties entrusted to the acolyte, such as distributing Holy Communion to the sick, for example.
This new ministry is always given to men studying to become priests or deacons, but can also be appointed to ordinary lay men who have no intention of receiving ordination.
While the Catholic Church defines acolytes in this official capacity, the term is more commonly used when referring to altar servers and even more specifically, those who carry the candles at Mass. For this reason bulletins on occasion will name an “acolyte,” which may simply mean an altar server who will carry the candles.
Regardless, this usage corresponds with the ancient duties of the acolyte that have been passed down over the centuries.
It is a beautiful and sacred role in the Catholic Church, one that comes with much responsibility in assisting priests and deacons during the celebration of Mass.