In his first few years as an acolyte during the 1970s, people would avoid receiving the Eucharist from Peter McGann during Mass and instead go to the priest.
“People didn’t know what an acolyte was in those days, and I think it took them a while to accept that somebody other than the priest was going to give out Communion and take Communion around,” Peter told Catholic Outlook.
“There was a lot of doubt as to whether we should be doing what we were doing, and I had personal friends who queried me as to why and what I was doing.”
The ministry of the acolyte is known to have existed in the Latin Church as early as the 3rd Century. An acolyte previously formed part of the minor orders of the priesthood.
St Pope Paul VI issued Ministeria quaedam (On certain ministries) on 15 August 1972, which revised these minor orders, allowing for lay people to be acolytes.
“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,” it reads.
Peter, 82, and his friend William ‘Bill’ Hardy, 83, from St Padre Pio Parish, Glenmore Park, were among the first men to be instituted as acolytes for the Catholic Church in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
Over 40 years as acolytes, Peter and Bill would train junior altar servers, prepare the altar and sacred vessels for Mass, distribute Communion during Mass and during visits to the sick and homebound, and serve alongside priests, bishops, cardinals and even Popes.
Both men would serve a combined 85 years in ministry before Bill’s retirement in November 2019 and Peter’s retirement in March 2020.
Before becoming friends, Peter and Bill served for many years in their respective parishes of St Patrick’s, Guildford, and St Nicholas of Myra, Penrith.
Peter was instituted into the ministry of acolyte for the Archdiocese of Sydney by then-auxiliary Bishop Bede Heather (who would later become the first Bishop of Parramatta), in Guildford on 11 December 1977.
Bill joined Peter in the ministry of acolyte just under a year later on 27 November 1978, when he was instituted by then-Bishop Edward Bede Clancy at St Patrick’s Parish, Blacktown.
After retiring from their working careers, both men and their wives moved to Glenmore Park in Western Sydney in the early 2000s, when the parish was a parochial district of St Nicholas of Myra Parish, Penrith.
Bill explained, “when we first moved to Glenmore Park, it was a very small Catholic community, which was a very close community.
“I was involved in the construction of the new church at Glenmore Park and was a representative to the Diocese during its construction and I was on the parish councils for a while,” Bill said. In 2014, Bill was awarded the Diocesan Medal of Honour for service to the Diocese and the Australian Catholic Community.
In Ministeria quaedam, Pope Paul VI mentions that an 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.”
Both Bill and Peter exemplified this role in their love for the Body of Christ and their love for the people of God.
For Bill, being of service was a part of who he was. “I felt my ministry the most when I would celebrate the Communion services in the absence of the priest. I thought that was a very important and honourable role for me to do.
“Serving and being of service is part of who I am, it’s my responsibility in life to help where I feel I can help.
“I haven’t done anything that I would consider outstanding. If people needed help and I was able to help, well, why not?”
As for Peter, he found that when he would take Communion to the sick and at home, “you could see how much joy it was for them to be able to have someone come to them.
“I’ve met some wonderful people, I’ve met a lot of interesting acolytes, and it was a very rewarding thing to be able to see the benefit of taking Communion to people who couldn’t get to church.
“The Eucharist is very important to me because, I find, to receive Communion and being able to give Communion gives you satisfaction. You can not only have the choice of receiving but also of being able to give as well. You’re able to do something for the Church and for Christ,” he said.
When reflecting on their ministry, both Bill and Peter held close memories of serving at Masses important to their families.
“I served as an acolyte for my mother’s requiem Mass, and Fr [John] Grady [parish priest of St Nicholas of Myra Parish, Penrith, from 1964 to 1984] told me I wasn’t to do anything, I was the chief mourner. But I still served and stood beside him the whole time,” Bill said.
“In the last few weeks of Fr Grady’s life, I used to, every morning, go and help him celebrate Mass. He needed a lot of help during that time, and I used to prepare the altar and do everything else, except the consecration. I often think back on that as a treasured moment of mine,” he added.
In Peter’s ministry, serving alongside two different Popes was another proud moment.
“Two of the things that stick out in my mind as an acolyte was being able to give both my sons their first Holy Communion, which Fr [Louis] Breslin [parish priest of St Patrick’s Parish, Guildford from 1975 to 2009] suggested would be nice.
“The other time was when we were visited by Pope John Paul II [in 1986] and Pope Benedict XVI [in 2008], we were able to go out to Randwick [Racecourse] and distribute communion on behalf of the Pope,” he said.
Residing on the other side of the altar, Bill said that it was a true honour for him to have served the Church in such a spiritual way.
“I was very conscious that I was the servant of the people. I always considered myself a servant at God’s table. It was my honour the whole time [to be serving].
“I’ve enjoyed being an acolyte. It’s been an honour,” Bill said.
This article was originally featured in the Spring 2020 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.