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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 Catholic Church
Altar servers are a post-Trent innovation in parish churches. Formerly, ordained 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.
In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments clarified that 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, 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. In 2006, the only United States diocese that excluded women from service at the altar was that of Lincoln, Nebraska. 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 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 formerly was classified as a minor order, at least six months before being ordained as deacons.
Duties at Mass
- Entrance: Servers participate in the entrance procession, led by one who acts as thurifer with burning incense (if incense is used at the Mass) and bearers of lighted candles flanking another carrying the cross.
- Servers hold the 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, lavabo bowl and towel, patens, communion bowls, and microphones.
- Proclamation of the Gospel: At the preceding Alleluia or other chant, the thurible is presented to the priest for him to put incense in it, and then servers, perhaps carrying candles and thurible, precede the priest or deacon who goes to the ambo to proclaim the Gospel there.
- Beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist: Servers arrange the corporal, the purificator(s), the chalice(s), the pall, and the Missal on the altar, and then assist the priest in receiving the bread and wine and perhaps other gifts that are presented to him. They present the cruets of wine and water for the priest or deacon to pour some into the chalice. If incense is used, the thurible and incense are presented to the priest and, after he has incensed the offerings, the cross and the altar, the deacon or a server incenses the priest and the people. When the priest then washes his hands standing at the side of the altar, a server pours the water over them.
- 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, the 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.
- Sign of Peace: The servers may receive the sign of peace from the priest or deacon within the sanctuary.
- 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.
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.
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. Black and red are the most common colors for a server's cassock, if used.
Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches
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 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.
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.
Altar server, by Giacomo di Chirico
Escolanets, by José Benlliure y Gil
Ministranten beim Gebet by Felix von Ende, c. 1888
Palm Sunday mass by Zdzisław Jasiński, 1891
- Code of Canon Law
- Vatican Communication on Female Altar Servers
- "USATODAY.com - Neb. diocese is lone U.S. holdout on allowing altar girls". usatoday.com.
- "Code of Canon Law - IntraText". vatican.va.
- "General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 100" (PDF). liturgyoffice.org.uk.
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 120
- "Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral Introduction (Catholic Truth Society 2005), p. 19" (PDF). liturgyoffice.org.uk.
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 132
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 133, 175
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 139
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 140
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 142
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 144, 178
- The General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes no reference to a separate incensing of concelebrants (cf. Edward McNamara, "Incensing the Congregation").
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 145
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 150
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 154, 181
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 169
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 119, 336
- "Acolyte". Episcopal Church. 22 May 2012. Retrieved 28 October 2017.
- "Acolytes and deacons". augustanadc.org. Retrieved 28 October 2017.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Altar servers.|
- Photo of Russian Orthodox bishop surrounded by servers
- SanctaMissa.org's Online Altar Server Tutorial with Video and Guides (1962 Roman Missal)
- Altar Server Guide
- Parent's Training Manual for Altar Servers Gives parents tips on how to prepare their children for serving at the altar
- Another Altar Server Manual
- Official Website of the Ministry of Altar Servers San Roque Cathedral, Diocese of Caloocan, Philippines
- Official Website of the Ministry of Altar Servers of Sto. Niño Parish, Taguig City, Philippines