ACOLYTE , the last of the four minor orders in the Roman Church. As an office it appears to be of local origin, and is entirely unknown in the Eastern Church, with the exception of the Armenians who borrowed it from the West. Before the council of Nicaea (325) it was only to be found at Rome and Carthage. When in 251 Pope Cornelius, in a letter to Fabius of Antioch, mentions among the Roman clergy forty-two acolytes, placing them after the subdeacons and before the other minor officials (see Eusebius, Hist. Ecc. lib. v. cap. 43), he gives no hint that the office was a new one, but speaks of them as holding an already established position. Their institution has therefore to be sought for at an earlier date than his pontificate. It is possible that the Liber Pontificalis refers to the office under the Latin synonym, when it says of Pope Victor (186-197) that he made sequentes cleros, a term--sequens--which Pope Gaius (283-293) uses in the sense of acolyte. While the office was well known in Rome, there is nothing to prove that it was also an order through which, as to-day, every candidate to the priesthood must pass. The contrary is a fact proved by many monumental inscriptions and authentic statements. Though the office is found at Carthage, and St Cyprian (200?-258) makes many references to acolytes, whom he used to carry his letters, this seems to be the only place in Africa where they were known. Tertullian, while speaking of readers and exorcists, says nothing about acolytes; neither does St Augustine. The Irish Church did not know them; and in Spain the council of Toledo (400) makes no mention either of the office or of the order. The Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua (falsely called the Canons of the Fourth Council of Carthage in 397), a Gallican collection, originating in the province of Arles at the beginning of the 6th century, mentions the acolyte, but does not give, as in the case of the other orders, any form for the ordination. The Roman books are silent, and there is no mention of it in the collection known as the Leonine Sacramentary; while in the so-called Gelasian Massbook, which as we have it, is full of Gallican additions made to St Gregory's reform, there is the same silence, though in one MS. of the 10th century given by Muratori we find a form for the ordination of an acolyte. While there is frequent mention of the acolyte's office in the Ordines Romani, it is only in the Ordo VIII. (which is not earlier than the 7th century) that we find the very simple form for admitting an acolyte to his office. At the end of the mass the cleric, clad in chasuble and stole and bearing a linen bag on one arm, comes before the pope or bishop and receives a blessing. There is no collation of power or order but a simple admission to an office. The evidence available, therefore, points to the fact that the acolyte was only a local office and was not a necessary step or order for every candidate. In England, though the ecclesiastical organization came from Rome and was directed by Romans, we find no trace of such an office or order until the time of Ecgbert of York (767), the friand of Alcuin and therefore subject to Gallican influence. The Pontifical known as Ecgbert's shows that it was then in use both as an office and as an order, and Aelfric (1006) in both his pastoral epistle and canons mentions the acolyte. The conclusion, then, which seems warranted by the evidence, is that the acolyte was an office only at Rome, and, becoming an order in the Gallican Church, found its way as such into the Roman books at some period before the fusion of the two rites under Charlemagne.
The duties of the acolyte, as given in the Roman Pontifical, are identical with those mentioned in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua of Arles: "It is the duty of acolytes to carry the candlesticks, to light the lamps of the church, to administer wine and water for the Eucharist." It might seem, from the number forty-two mentioned by Pope Cornelius, that at Rome the acolytes were divided among the seven ecclesiastical regions of the city; but we have no proof that, at that date, there were six acolytes attached to each region. From the ancient division of the Roman acolytes into Dalatini, or those in attendance on the pope at the Lateran palace, Stationarii, or those who served at the churches where there was a "station," and Regionarii, or those attached directly to the regiona, it would seem that the number forty-two was only the actual number then existing and not an official number. We get a glimpse of their duties from the Ordines Romani. When the pope rode in procession to the station an acolyte, on foot, preceded him, bearing the holy chrism; and at the church seven regionary acolytes with candles went before him in the procession to the altar, while two others, bearing the vessel that contained a pre-consecrated Host, presented it for his adoration. During the mass an acolyte bore the thurible (Ordo VI.) and three assisted at the washing of the hands. At the moment of communion the acolytes received in linen bags the consecrated Hosts to carry to the assisting priests. This office of bearing the sacrament is an ancient one, and is mentioned in the legend of Tarcisius, the Roman acolyte, who was martyred on the Appian Way while carrying the Hosts from the catacombs. The official dress of the acolyte, according to Ordo V., was a close-fitting linen garment (camisia) girt about him, a napkin hanging from the left side, a white tunic, a stole (orarium) and a chasuble (planeta) which he took off when he sang on the steps of the ambone.
At the present day, despite the earnest wish of the council of Trent (Sess. xxiii. cap. 17 d.r.), the acolyte, while remaining an order, has ceased to be essentially a clerical office, since the duties are now performed, almost everywhere, by laymen. The office has been revived, though unofficially, in the Church of England, as a result of the Tractarian movement.
See Morin, Commentarius in sacris Ecclesiae ordinationibus
(Antwerp, 1685), ii. p. 209, iii. p. 152; Martene, De Antiquis
Ecclesiae ritibus (Antwerp, 1739), ii. pp. 47 and 86; Mabillon,
Musaeum Italicum II. for the Ordines Romani; Muratori,
Liturgia Romana Vetus; Cabrol, Dictionnaire d'archeologie
chretisnne et de liturgie, vol. i. col. 348-536.-. (E. TN.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)