The acolytes main function is to assist with the Mass by way of assisting the priest at the altar with the liturgical vessels, generally trying making his service easier, and in an incomplete way, stepping in for a deacon if there is none present. For example, an acolyte does not proclaim the Gospel, but can dress the altar if there is no deacon. His primary duty is ordered towards the eucharist and the care of the sacred vessels.
As such, he is not an ordinary minister of Holy Communion like a bishop, priest or deacon is, but he is the first extraordinary minister. If more ministers are needed than you have clergy for, then he should be the first to step forward, as he has a special duty to do so. Usually, this Rite is celebrated by those preparing for ordination, but that is not required. In our diocese for example, we have a good number of acolytes who serve without desire for ordination.
When we celebrated the Rite, I felt the same kind of gravity that I felt when we received the Institution to the Ministry of Reader, that of being given a great responsibility, and of duty. As the bishop handed me the sacred chalice which holds within it God Himself, I was again struck by the seriousness of the moment. However, I was prepared for that. There was something else I was not prepared for.
I’m not sure anyone noticed when we received our first Rite. I didn’t look any different, I wore the same suit and tie I always have worn. I had read at Mass often before, so it was no surprise to see me there now. Yes, I felt very different, and thanks to my pastor, I did read much more often than I had in the past, but this hardly constituted a real change from the eyes of the average parishioner.
Many in the parish did not even realize I had been going through formation to become a deacon. It’s not that it was some secret, but it had never been announced at Mass or anything like that, and so a lot of people simply had no idea. They saw me very involved in parish life, but I had always been involved, so that was no great eye opener.
After the Rite of Institution of Acolyte, I suddenly everyone knew, and wanted to know more. Why did this Rite have such a huge effect on the parish, when the other went unnoticed? Very simply, I had to wear an alb, (a long white robe-like garment), and assist at the altar. Suddenly, I was a new guy on parade in front of everyone, and it was so obvious no one could miss it. I would get a million questions, my favorite comment was, “Why would a man of your age want to be an altar boy?”
Every mistake I made was done in full view. Every time Father looked my way, waiting for me to do something I had forgotten, the whole parish chuckled. It was like a comedy. And I was used to training altar servers! This is not exactly the beautiful, reverent, prayerful experience one hopes for in Mass, but the feeling of a thousand eyes watching your every move. It makes even simple things like carrying water very challenging. I got it all eventually, but at first, I won’t lie, I felt silly and sacred at the same time. Exalted and humbled. It was a good combo.
What I really learned though is this: when I’m doing my job well, I’m an arrow pointing to what is really happening. This was true then, and it’s true now as a deacon. When I become a living chalice, when my eyes, heart and body point to the Lord in the the Sacrament of the Altar, that is when I am truly fulfilling my vocation. In the beginning I was a distraction, but the better I became at my new task, the more invisible I became.
I learned this best later, after my ordination, as I held up the chalice full of His Most Sacred Blood, and realized that he was holding me, I was not holding him. But I’ll tell that story another day.