Altar server

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An altar server is a lay assistant to a member of the clergy during a Christian liturgy. An altar server attends to supporting tasks at the altar such as fetching and carrying, ringing the altar bell, among other things. A young male altar server is commonly called an altar boy, whereas a young female altar server is commonly called an altar girl.

Latin Church[edit]

50 altar servers, during a celebration of a 50-year-old church, Gennep, Netherlands, September 2004.

The role of altar server can perhaps be traced back to the third century: Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Saint Tarcisius as "presumably an acolyte, that is, an altar server".[1] While the function is commonly associated with children, the function can be and is carried out by people of any age or dignity.[2]

The practice, reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1775,[3] of excluding women from serving the priest at the celebration of Mass, has now been generally abandoned. In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments clarified that, in line with the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, service at the altar is to be considered one of the liturgical functions (such as those of lector and cantor) that, according to canon 230 §2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law,[4] lay people, male or female, may perform. At the same time the Congregation pointed out that this canon of the Code of Canon Law is only permissive and does not oblige to admit female altar servers.[5] In 2006, the only United States diocese that excluded women from service at the altar was that of Lincoln, Nebraska.[6] Even where the bishop does not limit the permission granted by general canon law, the priest in charge of a church is not obliged to avail of it. Traditionalist Catholic groups such as the FSSP and the Institute of Christ the King and some individual priests do not.

The term "acolyte" is sometimes applied to altar servers, but in a more precise sense it means an "instituted acolyte", someone who has received the instituted ministry of that name, usually reserved for those who are to be promoted to the permanent or transitory diaconate.[7] These must receive the ministry of acolyte, which formerly was classified as a minor order, at least six months before being ordained as deacons.[8] In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal the term "acolyte" is treated as distinct from the term "server".[9]

If a priest celebrates Mass at which a congregation does not assist, he should not do so without a server except out of serious necessity.[10]

Duties at Mass[edit]

In the absence of instituted acolytes, some of their functions at Mass may be carried out by altar servers.[11]

  • Servers hold liturgical books for the priest when he is not at the altar and is proclaiming the presidential prayers with outstretched hands. They bring and hold such things as books, thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, vessels to hold the consecrated bread, and microphones.[12]
Boy tasked with ringing bells at Mass in an Indonesian church.
  • Entrance: The entrance procession is led by a thurifer with burning incense (if incense is used at the Mass) and a cross-bearer carrying a processional cross, who is flanked on either side by another server bearing a lighted candle.[13]
  • Proclamation of the Gospel: If incense is used, a server presents to the priest at the Alleluia or other pre-Gospel chant the thurible and the incense that he puts in the thurible and blesses,[14] and servers, who may carry the thurible and lighted candles, precede to the ambo the deacon or priest who there proclaims the Gospel.[15]
  • Preparation of the Gifts: One or more servers assist in arranging on the altar the corporal, the purificator(s), the chalice(s), the pall(s), and the Missal, leaving it to the deacon to take care of the sacred vessels.[16] (At a concelebrated Mass without participation by a deacon, a concelebrating priest carries out the functions assigned to the deacon.)[17] If, as is appropriate, the bread and wine for the Mass are presented by the faithful, servers assist the priest or deacon who receives these and perhaps other gifts and carry the bread and wine to the priest, placing other gifts in a place distinct from the altar.[18] They present the cruets of wine and water for the priest or deacon to pour some into the chalice.[19] If incense is used, a server presents the thurible and incense to the priest, who incenses the offerings, the cross and the altar, after which the deacon or a server incenses the priest and the people.[20][21] When the priest then washes his hands standing at the side of the altar, a server pours the water over them.[22]
  • Consecration: An altar server rings a bell shortly before the consecration, generally at the epiclesis (when the priest extends his hands above the gifts). In accordance with local custom, a server also rings the bell when, after the consecrations of the bread and wine, the priest shows the Host and then the Chalice. If incense is used, a server incenses the consecrated host and the chalice while these are being shown to the people.[23]
  • Sign of Peace: The priest or deacon may give the sign of peace to servers, while remaining within the sanctuary.[24]
  • Distribution of Holy Communion: In some places it is customary for servers to assist at the distribution of Holy Communion by holding a communion-plate for communicants.[25] Whether it is to be held by communicants or by a server, a communion-plate is placed on the credence table before Mass.[26][27] Its use (held by the communicants) is prescribed when Holy Communion is given by intinction.[28]
  • Recessional: The servers lead the priest and any other clergy as at the entrance procession, except that a server who acted as thurifer at the entrance now follows the cross-bearer.[29]
  • If a bishop celebrates Mass solemnly, two servers, wearing vimpas, hold the mitre and the crosier, and present them at the appropriate times.


The vestment common to all ordained and instituted ministers of whatever rank is an alb, which is to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless the alb is made to fit without cincture.[30] Acolytes, readers and other lay ministers (such as altar servers) may wear either an alb or other appropriate attire as determined by the local episcopal conference.[31] All who wear an alb should use a cincture and an amice, unless the form of the alb makes these unnecessary.[32]

Servers often wear cassock and surplice, with black and red being the most common colors for a server's cassock.[33]

Byzantine Rite[edit]

Ukrainian Catholic bishop and priests during the Divine Liturgy, with altar servers in front (note the crossed oraria the servers are wearing).

In the Byzantine Rite, altar servers assist the higher clergy during services. They might carry the cross, candles or liturgical fans in processions and entrances; maintain the censer, ensuring it has enough live charcoal, loading it with incense and handing it to the priest or deacon when required; preparing the hot water (zeon) in time for it to be added to the chalice at the Divine Liturgy; prepare the antidoron for the people to receive after Holy Communion; and any other necessary tasks so that the priest need not be distracted during the service. An altar server is vested in the sticharion only.

In the early Church, before someone could be a server he had to be tonsured. Nowadays, in many places it is not necessary to be tonsured before one is allowed to serve (since the tonsure must be done by a bishop or higher-ranking priest). The rites of "Setting Aside a Taper-bearer" and "Tonsuring a Reader" have now been combined into one service. It is the custom in some traditions, such as the Greek Orthodox or Melkite Catholic, to allow tonsured altar servers to also vest in the orarion, worn crossed over the back like that of a subdeacon but with the ends hanging parallel in front. Among the Russians, however, the orarion is not usually worn by servers, but only by duly ordained subdeacons and deacons, with the exception that laymen who are blessed to perform some of the functions of subdeacons may sometimes be blessed to wear the orar.

Before vesting, the server must fold his sticharion and bring it to the priest for him to bless. The priest blesses and lays his hand on the folded sticharion. The server kisses the priest's hand and the Cross on the vestment, and then withdraws to vest. Any server who has not been tonsured must remove the sticharion when he receives Holy Communion, because communicants receive the Mysteries according to their order within the Church (so tonsured clergy vest while laymen remove their vestments). Before divesting at the end of the service, the server must receive the priest's blessing.

The minimum age varies by local circumstance, but boys must be mature enough to carry out their duties without disrupting the sanctity of the altar. Although it is common in North America for boys to act as altar servers, in some places this practice is virtually unknown and these duties are always carried out by adult men. In other places where altar servers are normally boys, adult men will not vest if called upon to serve. In yet other places, boys are not permitted to serve in the Altar on reaching their teens on the grounds that the young man is no longer innocent enough to serve in the altar.

Altar servers, regardless of age, are subject to all the normal restrictions for those not of higher clerical position. Anyone who is bleeding, or has an open sore, is not permitted to enter the altar. They may not touch the altar table or anything on it under any circumstances, nor the prothesis without a blessing. They may not touch the sacred vessels, the chalice and diskos (paten) at any time. They may not stand directly in front of the altar table or pass between the front of it and the iconostasis, but must cross between the altar and the High Place if they need to move to the opposite side.

In general, women do not serve in the altar except in women's monasteries. In that case they do not receive the clerical tonsure (though they must be tonsured nuns), and do not vest in the sticharion, but wear their normal religious habit for attending services, and serve at a certain distance from the actual altar table. Normally, only older nuns may serve in the altar; but the Hegumenia (Abbess) is permitted to enter even if she is younger. A few parishes have begun to use women as altar servers.

Other churches[edit]

In many Anglican churches,[34] and Lutheran churches,[35] all who serve in the above positions are called acolytes.

In Anglo-Catholic and some Episcopal Churches however, the vast majority of roles associated with an altar server are the same as those in the Catholic Church, and the same titles for each individual role are retained from Catholic tradition – mostly restored during the Oxford Movement in the 19th century.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 4 August 2010
  2. ^ Leonard of Port Maurice (1970). The Hidden Treasure: Holy Mass. TAN Books. ISBN 9781618905314.
  3. ^ Pope Benedict XIV, Encyclical Allatae sunt
  4. ^ Code of Canon Law
  5. ^ Vatican Communication on Female Altar Servers
  6. ^ " - Neb. diocese is lone U.S. holdout on allowing altar girls".
  7. ^ Laughlin, Corinna; Riley, Kenneth A.; Turner, Paul (2014). Guide for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. LiturgyTrainingPublications. p. 57. ISBN 9781616711283.
  8. ^ "Code of Canon Law - IntraText".
  9. ^ For instance in GIRM 339
  10. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 254; cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 906.
  11. ^ "General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 100" (PDF).
  12. ^ "Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral Introduction (Catholic Truth Society 2005), p. 19" (PDF).
  13. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 120
  14. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 132
  15. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 133, 175
  16. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 139, 178
  17. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 208
  18. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 73, 140
  19. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 142
  20. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 144, 178
  21. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes no reference to a separate incensing of concelebrants (cf. Edward McNamara, "Incensing the Congregation").
  22. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 145
  23. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 150
  24. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 154, 181
  25. ^ "Altar Boy Handbook of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Gainesville, Virginia (2009), p. 16" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-07-14.
  26. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 118
  27. ^ Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum, 93
  28. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 118
  29. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 169
  30. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 336
  31. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 339
  32. ^ General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 119
  33. ^ Edward McNamara "Colors of Cassocks and Altar Cloths"
  34. ^ "Acolyte". Episcopal Church. 22 May 2012. Retrieved 28 October 2017.
  35. ^ "Acolytes and deacons". Retrieved 28 October 2017.

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