An acolyte is a non-ordained person in the Roman Catholic Church who assists with the performance of worship services by lighting candles and carrying out other duties. The Anglican Church also has acolytes who assist their clergy in the various rituals of the service.
The term acolyte derives from the Greek akolouthos, meaning “follower” or “attendant.” Formerly one of the minor orders of the Roman Catholic clergy, an acolyte was historically a candidate for the priesthood who assisted the priests and bishops in performing their tasks.
Leadership offices in the Catholic Church are called “orders.” The major orders of the church are deacon, priest, and bishop, whereas the minor orders initially included lector (reader), porter (doorkeeper), exorcist, and acolyte. The minor orders of the clergy were established in the third century, probably by Pope Fabian, with acolyte as the highest minor order in which a man advanced toward ordination as a Catholic priest.
As early as the third century, Roman Catholic bishops used acolytes as personal attendants and couriers who delivered their letters, messages, and gifts. By the Middle Ages, acolytes began to assume more liturgical duties, including the oversight of altar lights and Eucharistic elements.
Today, an acolyte no longer must be a candidate for the priesthood. When Pope Paul VI reformed the orders of the church in 1972, lay people were allowed to become acolytes. The changes abolished the orders of exorcist and porter and made the positions of lector and acolyte “ministries” instead of “orders.” Acolyte is still first in rank of these two lesser ministries of the Roman Catholic Church. Currently, an acolyte’s duties include preparing the elements of the Eucharist, carrying processional crosses and candles, and lighting candles for the Mass. An acolyte may also distribute communion as an auxiliary minister in the Mass and to the sick. In the Catholic Church, the acolytes are men, but some acolyte tasks may be delegated to women.
The Bible makes no mention of an order of acolyte. Scripture only identifies two offices of the church: elders (also called pastors or bishops) and deacons. Eastern Orthodox churches have never recognized an office of acolyte. The closest equivalent to an acolyte in Eastern churches is an altar server or altar boy. In Anglican and Episcopal churches, altar servers are often called acolytes. Methodist and Lutheran churches also use altar servers, acolytes, and crucifers to assist the clergy. In denominations that use altar servers and acolytes, the ministry can usually be performed by men, women, and children, although typically not younger than age ten.