ASK FATHER: What can the acolyte do and wear?

From a reader…


I was wondering if you know the rubrics or know where the rubrics for lay instituted acolytes in the EF can be found?
At my parish, we try and do a lot of things in the extraordinary form, and I am trying to find some authoritative/knowledgeable source on what an instituted acolyte can/ cannot do/wear (in terms of the biretta) for liturgical celebrations (mainly outside of Mass). Thank you!

Once upon a time, Paul VI suppressed the “minor orders” with a document called Ministeria quaedam.  In that document the Pope said that, henceforth, the functions of the subdeacon would be assumed by lectors and acolytes.    Along came the 1983 Code for the Latin Church which supplanted Mq to a degree. It has canons on the lector and acolyte and established that the clerical state, which once began with tonsure and minor orders, now begins with diaconate.

Technically, cleric choir dress should apply to clerics.  However, it also pertains to servers who fill the roles in liturgical service that clerics would ideally serve.

To my mind, the instituted lector/acolyte can wear the tunic and function as the subdeacon in the Usus Antiquior.  Some don’t like this suggestion, but they can do so even if they left seminary and married.  They are still lectors/acolytes.  Some would not vest this liturgical critter in a maniple.  Lana caprina.

To my mind, the instituted lector/acolyte can wear clerical choir dress (cassock, collar, surplice, biretta) when in choir, as the subdeacon of yore would.  Some might disagree.  Fluctus in simpulo.

Otherwise, the acolyte can function in the EF as… acolyte!  He can take other roles, too.  Be flexible.

There are good books which breaks down and describes the individual roles of different ministers at Mass.  I like Stehle and Collins.

¡Hagan lío!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. I agree with Fr. Z.

    Mysteria Quaedam “abolished” the “major” order of subdeacon, and provided that “the functions heretofore assigned to the subdeacon are entrusted to the reader and the acolyte; consequently, the major order of subdiaconate no longer exists in the Latin Church. There is, however, no reason why the acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon in some places, at the discretion of the conference of bishops.’

    The rite for instituting a subdeacon in the old liturgy was the handing over of the instruments: chalice, paten, cruets of wine and water, and the Epistolary. There was a blessing but no laying on of hands (as in the other major orders). The provision in MQ that there is no reason why a instituted acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon is correct give the nature of the reformed rites as to the matter and form of the rite.

    In the modern insallation of an acolyte, he is to receive the paten with a host and/or chalice with wine. I received both and that is what I have always seen. He has already received the lectionary when installed as a lecture. There is a blessing prayer (in both the rite for acolyte and lector. In short, the modern acolyte has received an even fuller handing over of the instruments since the subdeacon did not receive the host—and the wine was separate from the chalice.

    So the matter of the new rite includes all the matter of the old (and more) and the form (a blessing) is the same.

  2. Fr. Kelly says:

    In my diocese of Lincoln, we have a regular program of installation of permanent lectors and acolytes, following the stipulations of Ministeria Quaedam as Fr. Z pointed out.
    Pope Paul VI lays out the connection to the subdiaconate. in the norms of that Motu Proprio.
    In sum:
    — The Acolyte is appointed to aid the deacon and minister to the priest.
    — The Acolyte is to attend to service at the altar and assist the deacon and priest in liturgical functions.
    — With the suppression of the subdiaconate, the functions of the subdeacon are to be performed by the lector and acolyte
    — “There is no reason why the acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon in some places, at the discretion of the conference of bishops.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with Fr. Z. and have no hesitation in saying that an instituted acolyte who has been taught the ceremonies can function as an acolyte or as a subdeacon in the EF in virtue of his ministry.

    Here are the relevant passages from Ministeria Quaedam

    After weighing every aspect of the question, seeking the opinion of experts, consulting with the conferences of bishops and taking their views into account, and after taking counsel with our esteemed brothers who are members of the congregations competent in this matter, by our apostolic authority we enact the following norms, amending-if and in so far as is necessary-provisions of the Codex Iuris Canonici now in force, and we promulgate them through this Motu Proprio.

    First tonsure is no longer conferred; entrance into the clerical state is joined to the diaconate.
    What up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be 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 preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte. The functions heretofore assigned to the subdeacon are entrusted to the reader and the acolyte; consequently, the major order of subdiaconate no longer exists in the Latin Church. There is, however, no reason why the acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon in some places, at the discretion of the conference of bishops.

    The acolyte is appointed in order to aid the deacon and to minister to the priest. It is his duty therefore to attend to the service of the altar and to assist the deacon and the priest in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of Mass; he is also to distribute communion as a special minister when the ministers spoken of in the Codex Iuris Canonici can. 845 are not available or are prevented by ill health, age, or another pastoral ministry from performing this function, or when the number of communicants is so great that the celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. In the same extraordinary circumstances an acolyte may be entrusted with publicly exposing the blessed sacrament for adoration by the faithful and afterward replacing it, but not with blessing the people. He may also, to the extent needed, take care of instructing other faithful who on a temporary basis are appointed to assist the priest or deacon in liturgical celebrations by carrying the missal, cross, candles, etc., or by performing other such duties. He will perform these functions more worthily if he participates in the holy eucharist with increasingly fervent devotion, receives nourishment from it, and deepens his knowledge about it.

    As one set aside in a special way for the service of the altar, the acolyte should learn all matters concerning public divine worship and strive to grasp their inner spiritual meaning: in that way he will be able each day to offer himself entirely to God, be an example to all by his gravity and reverence in church, and have a sincere love for the Mystical Body of Christ, the people of God, especially for the weak and the sick.
    In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men.

  3. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    There are ritual differences between a subdeacon (which basically almost never exists now outside of Trad groups) and a straw subdeacon though, yes?

  4. JARay says:

    I am an Instituted Acolyte and have been so for 42 years. I do live in Australia and not the USA. I have never had the chance to act as a Subdeacon but I would have loved having the chance if it came my way. I would have expected to wear the dress of Subdeacon had that opportunity occured. I think that I will never get that opportunity now since my age would be against it.

  5. Pingback: THVRSDAY MORNING EDITION – Big Pulpit

  6. Fr. Kelly says:

    Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda
    a straw subdeacon is what we call a man who is not ordained as a subdeacon (or instituted as an acolyte) who, in a given instance fulfills the role of a subdeacon in a solemn Mass. This is sometimes done when a subdeacon is not available, but a man is needed to sing the epistle, etc.

    In this case, he does not wear the maniple, nor pour the water at the offertory.

    As Fr. Z, Fr. Thompson and I have pointed out, this is not the case for the instituted acolyte. When he serves as subdeacon, he is a not a straw subdeacon, but truly a deacon. [No, he is not truly a deacon. Neither is he truly a subdeacon, though when serving he can be called such.]

  7. Fr. Kelly says:

    My mistake. That was meant to read, “subdeacon”

  8. StabatMater says:

    As per straw subdeacon (simple married layman never instituted as acolyte):

    “In this case, he does not wear the maniple, nor pour the water at the offertory.”

    Nor should he don a biretta.

    Should he also refrain from administering Communion to the faithful in the EF?

  9. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    ” Some would not vest this liturgical critter in a maniple.”

    Count the Vatican / PCED among the “some”. An instituted acolyte may function as a STRAW subdeacon. (Which has the “particular appropriate ritual differences”.)

  10. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I dont feel like I’m keeping up with the various positions in this comment thread…if the instituted acolyte/lector fulfills the liturgical roles of a subdeacon (which seems the clear meaning of the change Paul VI foresaw) and Paul VI said they could be called “subdeacon” at the Bishop’s discretion, why are they considered STRAW subdeacons and not liturgically subdeacons proper?

  11. Fr. Kelly says:

    I am with you Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda

    The response from PCED that Kenneth Wolfe cites does not mention Straw subdeacons.
    In answer to the question:
    May a layman who is not a seminarian serve as a subdeacon at a Solemn High Mass?

    PCED Answers:
    .. this Pontifical Commission would limit itself to saying that the function of Subdeacon can be legitimately assumed by an acolyte suitably instituted by a bishop, but with the particular appropriate ritual differences.

    No explicit mention of straw subdeacon.

    What those particular appropriate ritual differences are is supplied by Rorate Caeli and by Kenneth Wolfe and others.

    If these are differences from the ordinary vesture/ actions of a Subdeacon, they might be, for instance, no maniple and no pouring of wine at offertory as claimed.

    On the other hand, if they are differences from what is ordinarily prescribed for an Instituted Acolyte, (which seems more likely to me, since the question was about whether Instituted Acolytes may be allowed to serve as Subdeacon in a Solemn Mass) These differences might be, for instance, wearing of a tunicle and maniple as opposed to wearing an alb alone which is the prescribed vesture of an Instituted Acolyte according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal which ordinarily governs their service. or pouring the water at the offertory instead of merely presenting it to the Priest or Deacon to do so as is appropriate for an Instituted Acolyte under the GIRM.
    Since, in the Solemn Mass, they are working under a different ritual (1962), they would have to observe the particular ritual differences.

    In short, the response cited is helpful for telling us that instituted acolytes can serve as subdeacons, it does not say that they can only perform some of the the subdeacon’s functions or that they can only wear some of the subdeacon’s vesture. Since it does not say these things, it seems more likely that the Instituted Acolyte can legitimately assume the function of Subdeacon at Solemn Masses so long as he vests in the vestments of Subdeacon and performs the ritual actions of Subdeacon rather than those of Acolyte.

  12. Geoffrey says:

    @Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda:

    My understanding is that it has to do with the clerical state, which formerly began with the tonsure. Today, the clerical state begins with the diaconate. Only the clergy can properly don maniples and birettas. Modern-day instituted acolytes or “subdeacons” (such as myself) are instituted ministers, but not ordained ministers, and therefore not members of the clergy. We remain laymen, though I have read we are technically not “lay ministers”, but a category unto ourselves (instituted ministers).

  13. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    Father Kelly — When speaking of who may serve as subdeacon at a Missa Solemnis, I don’t believe there are many people who would interpret “particular appropriate ritual differences” as anything except the particular appropriate ritual differences that distinguish a straw subdeacon (seminarian or instituted acolyte) from a subdeacon (priest, deacon or subdeacon):

    The differences between an ordained subdeacon and a “straw” subdeacon are that the “straw” subdeacon does not wear the maniple; he does not pour the water into the chalice at the offertory, but must let the deacon do so; he must not touch the chalice infra actionem, nor cover it with the pall, nor uncover it; and after the communion he does not purify the chalice, as the celebrant must purify it, after which the “straw” subdeacon covers it with the veil and burse and carries it to the side table.

  14. Imrahil says:

    Well, dear Geoffrey, I think you did receive the minor order of acolyte (though not the order of subdeacon); the difference is that Church law draws the line between a cleric and a layman, a legal category, now right below the deacon, as it then used to draw it so as to include even the “tonsured cleric” who undisputedly had not received an order of any kind (the First Tonsure was not that).

  15. Fr. Kelly says:

    Dear Kenneth
    Since the Diocese of Lincoln is a small diocese, there may or may not be many who interpret it this way, but I am one of them, and in my interpretation I am in line with our Diocesan policies. Our bishop institutes men every year as permanent acolytes and lectors. For the most part, their entire service is in the Ordinary Form, but some few seek out and receive training for the Extraordinary Form as well.

    I am well aware of the limitations to the service of a “straw” subdeacon.

    My point is that when citing the authority of the PCED, we must look at what they are actually saying, not what we would like them to be saying.

    The question askedof the PCED is whether a layman who is not a seminarian can serve as a subdeacon at a Solemn Mass.

    The PCED chose to answer a slightly different question: Can the function of Subdeacon be legitimately assumed by an Acolyte suitably instituted by a Bishop?

    This question is both narrower and wider than the one asked.
    It is narrower in that the PCED response limits itself to those men who have been suitably instituted as acolytes, whether they are seminarians or not. (The question of whether they are transitional or permanent acolytes is immaterial to this response.)
    At the same time, it is wider since it addresses the function of subdeacon in its fullness, not just in the ceremonies of Solemn Mass.

    All references to Subdeacons, whether “straw” or actually ordained in this discussion are supplied by Rorate Caeli or by you. The question is not about subdeacons, but about insituted acolytes fulfilling the function of Subdeacon.

    PCED responded to this question as narrowly as possible, as they themselves said.

    I am regularly charged with preparing men to be “suitably instituted” as acolytes and part of this is training them for assisting at the OF. Much more rarely, I am called on to train them for Solemn Mass. It is here that most obviously appropriate ritual differences come into play. For instance, an instituted acolyte in the Ordinary form of the Roman Rite will normally set out the corporal on the altar, uncover the chalice, place it on the altar for the priest and open the book for him at the offertory. Then either himself or through the assistance of altar boys, he will present the water and wine to the priest / deacon to place them in the chalice. (The offertory rituals and actions are the point of greatest divergence between the old and new forms of the Mass, it seems to me.)
    These are not abuses in the Ordinary Form, but would be terrible abuses in the Extraordinary form. Hence, the suitably instituted acolyte who is fulfilling the function of Subdeacon in a Solemn Mass must observe particular appropriate ritual differences.

Comments are closed.