ACOLYTE: A member of the highest of the minor orders of the Roman Catholic Church. The order was established in the fourth or fifth decade of the third century, at the same time as the other minor orders, probably by Pope Fabian (236-250), but was not known to the East. The name (from the Gk. akalouthos, "a follower, attendant") indicates that the acolyte was originally the personal attendant of the bishop or of the presbyters. In this capacity he appears in Cypriot's epistles, where acolytes carry letters and fraternal gifts as directed by their bishop; and the same thing is seen in Augustine's time. This close connection with the higher clergy explains the position of the acolytes at the head of the minor orders. In the year 251 the local Roman Church had not less than forty-two acolytes (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., VI. xliii. 11). When the canonical age for the different orders was fixed, acolytes were required to be under thirty (Siricius, Ad Himerium, xiii.; 385 A.D.). In the Middle Ages the liturgical functions of the acolyte assumed greater prominence, including the charge of the altar-lights and the eucharistic wine. In Rome the acolytes were divided by special assignment among the various churches and regiones of the city. Since the close of the Middle Ages, the order has had only a nominal existence, though the Council of Trent (Session xxiii., De reform., xvii.) expressed a desire to see it restored to its former practical activity. In his investigation of the origin of the minor orders, Harnack has given Fabian as the founder of that of the acolytes; but he considers that it was an imitation of the pagan ritual system, in which special attendants (calatores) were assigned to the priests. However, this and the other minor orders may perfectly well have grown out of the needs of the Church without any copying of the pagan system. H. ACHELIS.
Since the Middle Ages the order has been understood as conferring the right to act as official assistant of the subdeacon in a solemn mass. No canonical age is now explicitly prescribed, but the requirement of a knowledge of Latin excludes the very young. J. T. C.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Bingham, Origines, book i.; J. Mabillon, Museum Italicum. ii. 84, Paris, 1687-89; L. A. Muratori, Liturgia Romana vetus, ii. 407, Venice, 1748; A. Harnack, Die Quellen der sogenannten apostolischen Kirchenordnung nebst einer Untersuchung uber die Ursprung des Lectorats und der anderen niederen Weihen, TU. ii. 5 (1886), 94 sqq.; R Sohm. Kirchenrecht, i. 128-137. Leipsic, 1892.