Altar server

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 Catholic Church

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

Altar servers are a post-Trent innovation in parish churches. Formerly, professed acolytes performed these functions, except in women's monasteries where nuns substituted for acolytes. When priestly training developed in seminaries, professed acolytes were no longer available in parishes. So as in convents, substitutes called altar servers developed. In the parishes, only men and boys served at the altar, but canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983 allowed local ordinaries to permit girls and women to do so (see Female altar servers). In the United States, only the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has not granted permission.[1] Even where the bishop grants permission, 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 the proper sense means someone who has been received the ministry of that name, usually reserved for those who are to be promoted to the permanent or transitory diaconate. These must receive the ministry of acolyte, which historically was classified as a minor order, at least six months before being ordained as deacons.[2]

Duties at Mass in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite

In the ordinary (normal) form of the Roman Rite of the celebration of Mass, provided no instituted acolyte is participating,[3] altar servers have the following responsibilities during:

If a bishop celebrates Mass solemnly, two servers, wearing vimpas, hold the mitre and the crosier, and present them at the appropriate times. Servers may also be needed to carry a processional canopy (baldachin) during a procession with the Blessed Sacrament outside, as on the feast of Corpus Christi.

Duties at Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite

In the Tridentine Mass, the 1962 version of which is an authorized extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, altar servers have the following responsibilities at Low Mass and Missa Cantata.


While ordained and instituted ministers must wear an alb (with cincture and amice unless the form of the alb makes these unnecessary), albs or any other appropriate attire, such as a cassock and surplice, may be worn by servers.[16] Black and red are the most common colors for a server's cassock, if used.

Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches

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

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, 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 celebrant 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

Main article: Acolyte

In lower Anglican churches, most Lutheran Churches, and in the Methodist Church, 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.


  1. " - Neb. diocese is lone U.S. holdout on allowing altar girls".
  2. "Code of Canon Law - IntraText".
  3. "General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 100" (PDF).
  4. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 120
  5. "Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral Introduction (Catholic Truth Society 2005), p. 19" (PDF).
  6. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 132
  7. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 133, 175
  8. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 139
  9. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 140
  10. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no 142
  11. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 144, 178
  12. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 145
  13. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 150
  14. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 154, 181
  15. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 169
  16. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 119, 336

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