Holy Oils: Explaining the Chrism Mass

Sean P. Cardinal O'Malley Blesses the Sacred Chrism (OLIVIA COLOMBO | THE TORCH)
Sean P. Cardinal O'Malley Blesses the Sacred Chrism (OLIVIA COLOMBO | THE TORCH)

by Mathieu Ronayne

 

Time seemingly stands still during Holy Week. We anticipate the climax of our faith as we celebrate Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, His Passion and Crucifixion on Good Friday, and His Resurrection in the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses. Between Palm Sunday and the Paschal Triduum, one can unknowingly overlook a more subtle, yet important, facet of Holy Week: the celebration of the Chrism Mass. 

 

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According to the Ceremonial of Bishops, “[The Chrism Mass], which the bishop concelebrates with his college of presbyters and at which he consecrates the holy chrism and blesses the other oils, manifests the communion of the presbyters with their bishop.” The bishop ordinarily celebrates the Chrism Mass at the cathedral on the morning of Holy Thursday. However, if it is difficult to assemble with the clergy and people, the bishop may celebrate it on an earlier day. Additionally, it may be celebrated at another church for pastoral reasons. The timing of the Mass has undergone changes throughout Church history. According to Fr. William Saunders writing at Catholic Exchange, “This tradition is rooted in the early Church as noted in the Gelasian Sacramentary (named after Pope Gelasius I, d. 496), but was later absorbed into the Holy Thursday evening Mass; Pope Pius XII issued a new Ordinal for Holy Week, which reinstituted a special Mass of the chrism distinct from the evening Mass.”

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The oils the bishop blesses are the Holy Chrism, Oil of Catechumens, and Oil of the Sick. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Each prayer of blessing includes an explanation of the power and effect of each oil.” Additionally, the Chrism is mixed with "with fragrances or other aromatic material," which is typically balsam. The blessing of the Oil of the Catechumens and consecration of the Chrism is done following the Prayer after Communion. During the blessing, the bishop breathes on the chrism, recalling when Jesus Christ breathed upon the disciples with the blessing of the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22). A more in-depth explanation of the process can be found within The Order of Blessing the Oil of Catechumens and of the Sick and of Consecrating the Chrism.

 

The chrism and oils find use in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick, as well as consecration of various objects such as altars, chalices, churches, and others. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The head of the newly-baptized is anointed with chrism, the forehead of the person confirmed, the head and hands of a bishop at his consecration, and the hands of a priest at his ordination. So are the walls of churches, which are solemnly consecrated, anointed with the same holy oil, and the parts of the sacred vessels used in the Mass which come in contact with the Sacred Species, as the paten and chalice.”

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Theologians have debated whether such use of chrism was instituted “immediately by Christ,” or if it has an ecclesiastical origin. Regardless, the process of anointing with oil has roots in the Old and New Testament, such as when Samuel anoints David king (1 Sam 16:4-13) and in the instruction to anoint the sick (Jam 5:14). Because the oils are used during the remainder of the year following their blessing, they are distributed to parishes within the diocese. In accordance with the Roman Missal, “The reception of the Holy Oils may take place in individual parishes either before the celebration of the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper or at another time that seems more appropriate."

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