Monday, January 31, 2011

Instituted Lectors and Acolytes: A Proposal

In a previous post, I commented on the difference between Acolytes and Lectors, and altar servers and readers. This post is an attempt to show that difference, and offer a proposal. Also, so that no-one could possibly claim I'm trying to "turn back the clock," I'm going to be using sources primarily written by Paul VI or that of the reformer, Annibale Bugnini (insert your sarcastic witticism here; or if you prefer, ring the bells in celebration).

I have intentionally limited my citations, where possible, to this time of the beginning of the reformed Liturgy, for the sake of discerning what the intentions of those reformers were. No doubt, there has been much to say since then, but I believe my proposals fall in line with what is currently in force.

I have done this, hopefully, to offer an alternative to the notion that a "reform of the reform" is necessary, owing to the fact that the first one failed. I contend that, rather, the reform as intended never truly happened, so what is needed is an actual implementation of what was called for during the reform, and in the many years since the Concilium. This seems (to me) to be consonant with what Pope Benedict is calling for. (NOTE: I'm not saying a reform of the reform isn't necessary, let's just start with what is given.)

On a personal note, out of a desire to see truly beautiful liturgy that elevates the soul to contemplate the Mysteries (and if my proposals are valid ones), I think that this is an avenue worth pursuing in every parish, hence my writing about it.


Formerly, the ministries of Acolyte and Lector were a part of the "minor orders," steps on the way to becoming an ordained cleric in to the "major orders". These ministries, in varying degrees, are seen all the way back to the early Church.

Although these ministries are not traced back to apostolic times, they have a recorded history dating back to at least 255a.d.. I'd also note, especially since this is a primary reason for their reconfiguration, and for the sake of discussion, that the Second Eucharistic Prayer allegedly dates back to the same time period, even though it is doubtful if it was ever used in the tradition of the Church, and was "revived" (or came in to use for the first time) during the same time that these ministries were reconfigured in to something else.

For more information on the Minor Orders, see ye olde Catholic Encyclopedia.


In 1972, Paul VI issued a Motu Proprio, Ministeria Quadeam (On certain kinds of Ministries), which changed the way these venerable ministries would be carried out in the service of the Church.

The reason for this, as referenced in the document, were meant to be in accord with the desire of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, when they wrote in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, for the "full, conscious, and active participation" of all the faithful. Moreover, that the faithful in exercising their lay priesthood, exercise a true ministry, in collaboration with those in the ministerial priesthood.

IT SHOULD BE NOTED at this point, that, contrary to popular myth, the minor orders were not suppressed by this document. Rather, the minor orders were "re-ordered" in an effort to include the lay faithful among their ranks in exercising these ministries.

The new norms laid out in the document for what were formerly called the minor orders are summarized as follows (for full text, see the document):

-What  were called minor orders are now called "ministries"

-"ministries" may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders

- two ministries, adapted to "present day needs," are to be reserved universally-- those of lector and acolyte. The functions of the subdeacon are to be assumed between the two ministries... the acolyte can be called a subdeacon in some places at the discretion of the bishop's conference.

(note the word "universally"-- it makes allowances for those who would want to continue to use all of the minor orders)

-Those who can be instituted into these ministries, in accord with ancient tradition, are to be reserved to men only.

- these are ministries conferred by the Ordinary.

-candidates for ordination must be instituted into these ministries prior to ordination.


First, the minor orders were never suppressed, even though earlier in the document, Paul VI talks about his intention that "what was obsolete in these offices be removed," he doesn't actually suppress them in the action items.

Second, these are ministries exercised at the behest of the Bishop. In fact, the rites for installation actually use the same symbols as the conferral of minor orders. It makes an allowance for using other offices formerly known as minor orders, as we see with the various fraternities and communities (FSSP, Oratorians, etc)

Third, they are now open to lay men.


Paul VI in this document, and other documents, doesn't seem to be opening a floodgate of the laity taking over the liturgies; but rather, he continually calls for "formation, formation, formation". The men instituted in to these ministries truly need to have the education to carry out their duties permanently. They need to have a desire to learn more and pray for growth in their area of ministry. How many permanent diaconal candidates, prior to institution in these ministries, truly get the necessary formation in these areas? For that matter, how many seminarians?

There are many of the "Am-church" persuasion who would not see this episcopally appointed ministry as an obligation upon the person instituted, or the parish in which they serve to use them. That, if we had an instituted lector, they would just take their spot in the weekly rotation of readers.

I beg to differ. As the ministries are conferred permanently by the Bishop, it seems that it is their responsibility to, when able, exercise this ministry. If a Lector intentionally "sat it out,"  while some other random person carried out the function and butchered the readings of the day, to me, it seems it could be a grave matter-- especially if the substitute reader caused the faithful in attendance at Mass to be distracted or pulled out of prayer as a result of the poor reading.

Canon 230 seems to be stating that there is a hierarchy-- a difference between those permanently installed by the Ordinary, and those who are deputed for a short time by the pastor of a parish.

The GIRM also seems to prefer those instituted ministers to other lay folks in these areas (cf. GIRM 100, 101).

Further, we can see this paralleled in an explicit hierarchy presented in the General Introduction to the new book of blessings-- that, after a person in orders, "an acolyte or reader who by formal institution in the Church is rightly preferred over another lay person as the minister designated... to impart certain blessings." (18)

Finally, drawing another parallel, in Immensae Caritatis, there is a hierarchy laid out for those distributing communion in the absence of a clergy or acolyte: Lector, major seminarian, man religious, woman religious, catechist, [finally] one of the faithful-- a man or a woman. Though this is relating to EMHCs, it seems reasonable to presume a similar hierarchy would be in place in the absence of Acolytes and Lectors.

IF this was the desire of reforming the ministries, to include lay men in these ministries, and even for those instituted as a progression toward Orders, I can think of very few places in the world that I am aware of that use them in this manner. In America, the average parish has lost this concept entirely, if the concept ever even existed.


My proposal is that, if these instituted ministries were utilized in the manner in which the documents seem to state, we would be cutting out a lot of excess fat in our liturgies. The liturgy would flow a bit better, without the pauses of tons of people walking around. Further, there would be an increased reverence-- the better quality of the formation of the ministers would allow for more emphasis on the ars celebrandi as it applies to the various ministries. In essence, the Mass would become more "Roman" Catholic, rather than generic, beige catholicism. Of course, this is just one aspect of the Mass-- along with music, the singing of prayers by the celebrant, the "orien"-tation of prayer, etc-- but I think it is a major component.

If there were two or three Acolytes and Lectors at every parish (with a proper amount of formation), and they were embraced by the pastor, we would see them doing the readings, assisting the deacons, and even if need be, an acolyte could purify the vessels. They would be vested, and process in with the other ministers (which was the intention in the GIRM when talking about this issue. Not for lay folks in plain clothes to process in carrying books-- how tacky). 

They would take on responsibilities in educating those who would be temporarily deputized in the functions of reader and altar server. These men could be a major asset in the cultivation of vocations among the young.

In all of this, there is the confusion of lanuage. The more recent document, Ecclesiae de Mysterio, is very clear about the need for a consistent terminology and distinction here. Lectors and Acolytes, by virtue of their institution by the Bishop, take on an ordinary ministry; whereas readers and altar servers take on an extraordinary one (albeit, imho, a more "real" ministry than that of EMHCs, but that's another post entirely).

To conclude, in practical terms, the "instituted ministries," as they are now called, have largely only been used as they were prior to the Reform-- for minor orders along the path to ordination. It seems that, if the reality is that these ministries are truly minor orders, not instituted ministries, and reserved only to those on the path to ordination, then all of these documents from a very confused period in the Church really have no bearing. HOWEVER, if it is not the case, and these ministries can be exercised legitimately by the lay faithful, it seems that these documents hold a key to an authentic reform of the Liturgy, and add clarity to what Sacrosanctum Concilium called for in this regard.

Any comments you have would be most welcome. Or, if you think it makes sense, feel free to send this along to your Pastor or Bishop. God bless you!


  1. I have contacted my Bishop to offer my services as a Lay Instituted Acolyte. He does not permit lay men to be either Instituted Lectors nor Instituted Acolytes, with the primary reason being that it eliminates the use of women in these roles. I offered to go through any educational training or requirements to be Instituted, but it was a definite no. I am only aware of three U.S. Dioceses that have Lay Instituted Lecors and Acolytes, and those are Lincoln, Nebraska, Salem (I think, it was were Bishop Vasa was at before receiving his new post as a Bishop in California)Oregon, and I think in Corpus Christi, Texas. It is very rare that a lay man be an Instituted Lector or Instituted Acolyte, so, other than eliminating the Minor Orders and the Major Order of Sub-deacon, I don't believe that Pope Paul VI, in his Motu Proprio, Ministeria quaedam, of 1972, accomplished what he set out to accomplish. Just my opinion.

    1. Even though the changes were made in 1972 by Pope Paul VI, for some reason it is just now being utilized. I will pray for your Bishop that he will have a change of heart. It seems as though as new younger bishops are being appointed, the instituted acolyte is becoming more popular.

    2. Add the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to your list. Three of us from my parish just completed the last class and will be Instituted October 30.

  2. I have been an instituted Acolyte for just over 2 years. I had to do a short course and I have done a lot of research work on the subject. I have found that when I take communion to someone who is housebound or sick, that I am someone very special. I am the connection between the parish and that person. You taking Our Lord into the home. A very special gift for them. You do the service in a way that shows how special it is.

    The visit should not have as the main aim a cup of tea between the two of you and communion just a quick add on.

    I also do the Acolyte at Mass job too.
    Being an Instituted Acolyte is a very special service and from what I have seen, it is not a position for woman. They can do many other jobs but I see issue's here.
    I am not talking about extra-ordinary minister of communion this is an area where all help is required. But special training is urgently needed.
    Some have almost NO TRAINING( max 10minutes, in cases many years ago ) for this job.
    The service needs to give the person the feeling of the season. e.g. Easter,Lent,Christmas etc. At homes it needs more.

    Allow woman as Acolyte's you would be pushed over in the rush. Would the church be better, NO in fact it will go backwards fast. I have seen many woman in charge of business's and they have failed big time.
    Other church's that have had woman clergy where has it got them! I am not talking about nun's who do a fantastic job in their area.

    I am in a country where we have TOO MANY young woman with no real understanding making a mess of everything. A degree or masters is all they think they need. They just think for themselves only.

    I have found in the Acolyte job and taking communion out, it is a service to my fellow parish people. It is very special. I obtain a lot of satisfaction from doing it. But I see others are ready to take over just for boosting their own ego.

    We must act now!

  3. The Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana has Instituted Acolytes that perform the duties of the previous major order of Subdeacon. I am currently in formation and hoping to be installed/instituted by our new Bishop before the end of this year. Lectors are required to view a training DVD, but their is no installation.

  4. I just finished my training for Lay Acolyte in the Lincoln NE diocese. Here is my understanding of the general process (although our Bishop and the Pastors would be much more knowledgeable.

    Only men are selected to be candidates for Acolyte. They are selected by the local Pastor as someone that they feel is ready to serve in the ministry of Acolyte. We received 6 sessions of 2 hours duration on a range of topics including moral theology, prayer, spiritual life, and some general dogma of the church and the ministry of Acolyte. The training ended with a session of reflection which was about 2 and a half hours long. During the reflection session we had Eucharistic adoration, confession, and reflections from a Priest about maintaining our spiritual life.

    It was impressed upon us the lifelong commitment to the church, the Mass, and to the ministry. Fortunately, the Lincoln diocese is very orthodox and we have had great Bishops.

    I will join the other candidates for our installation ceremony at the cathedral in about 6 weeks. I'm very humbled and look forward to serving in any way asked of me.

    Here's how Acolytes participate in mass in our diocese: they are all vested in albs with built-in cinctures (with formal dress clothes underneath); 2 acolytes process in with the priest, lector, and 2 altar servers; one acolyte carries the processional cross; one acolyte is responsible for the sacramentary (holding, turning pages); the other prepares the altar before the Eucharistic Liturgy; one helps carry the thurible and incenses the priest and laity (if called for); and finally, the acolytes help distribute communion (at church and to the homebound).

    In reading the GIRM, the 1972 Motu Proprio, and Canon 230-1 that our diocese is carrying out this ministry correctly.

    One of the great fruits of having lay men as acolytes is the benefit of boys having yet more modeling of serving the church and possibly discerning the priesthood. We are already blessed of having an abundance of seminarians and one of the highest priest/parishoner ratio in the country. Our altar server Leadership camps in the summer have long waiting lists.

    One resource is

    God Bless you all,
    Pax et Bonum

  5. Urgent: Where is "previous post"?

    Greetings, Mr Owens. I write because I am doing research for a project on altar-servers and came across this blog post. (By the way, I must say this shows dedication, even if the blog itself is not regularly updated. I appreciate these pages very much.)

    That being said, I cannot find the "previous post" you mention above on the distinction between acolytes/"lectors" and altar-servers/readers. I must note, however, that while I say to find this post is urgent, it's not because I am pressed for time; nor is it because I don't have a general understanding of the distinction. Rather, having read the post on this page, I would very much like to see how you articulate the other matter.

    I assure you, however, my research is preliminary and, though I have so many times been discouraged from citing blogs for my coursework, you will be credited when I know I speak from what you have written. At the same time, if I do need something more official, I suppose I can ask you to send me this information, so it could qualify as private correspondence.

    Thanking you for your attention and praying for your successful studies, I am,

    your brother in Christ,

  6. Dear Johan,

    The previous post mentioned is a reference to the the comment I make about the equivocal use of the terms in the document the USCCB put out for the implementation of the new Missal. (found here: )

    Re: referencing - do go look at the original documents which I link; they are very clear, and far more authoritative than my own words! Where are you studying?

    If you would like to get in touch more directly on the subject, feel free to go to my website, , and fill out the comment card - I will email you back through there!

    May God bless you,