by Dianne Rachal, Director of Worship
Chrism Mass is held during Holy Week in every Catholic diocese. The celebration of Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans is the largest diocesan liturgy and highpoint of the diocesan liturgical year. Bishop Michael Duca presides, surrounded by his priests and deacons, and his flock who are all the faithful of the diocese. This is the preeminent manifestation of the local Church. Bishop Duca blesses the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick, and the Sacred Chrism, and these holy oils are distributed to all the parishes and Catholic hospitals in the diocese.
In ancient Greece and Rome oil was used by athletes to limber up muscles. Oil was believed to bring strength and protection. Oil was also used for its healing properties, as the Good Samaritan poured oil into the wounds of the injured man, Luke 10:34. Oil was poured on the head as a sign of belonging, for example, in the initiation of Roman soldiers. In the Old Testament oil was used to consecrate altars, sacred places and sacred vessels, as well as to anoint priests. Prophets were also considered anointed by God’s Spirit to speak powerfully and with authority in God’s name. Kings were anointed to rule God’s people. Anointing was also a sign of God’s strength, favor, and a sign of the joy of being God’s servant, as in Psalm 45:8: “God your God has anointed you with the oil of gladness…” Oil was an important ingredient in preparing the food that kept people alive. Oil was poured over the head of guests as a sign of welcome.
The biblical word for one who was anointed was “messiah.” Translated into Greek, the language of the New Testament, messiah becomes Christos, or Christ. When we call Jesus our Messiah, we are saying that he was anointed by God to announce God’s word—the Good News of salvation—to God’s people. In Luke, Jesus says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” Luke 4:18.
Baptism makes us Christians, that is, anointed ones who share in the life of the crucified and risen Jesus, God’s anointed one. Immediately before being baptized with water, we are anointed with the Oil of Catechumens, which strengthens and purifies us. After baptism with water, we are anointed with the Sacred Chrism which consecrates us as members of Christ’s body who share in Jesus’ anointing as priest, prophet and king. This anointing with Sacred Chrism gives us the Holy Spirit’s strength to live out our baptism. Anointing with Sacred Chrism at Confirmation completes the grace of Baptism, and seals us with the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s gifts.
The Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick are blessed; Sacred Chrism is consecrated. Only the bishop may consecrate Sacred Chrism. When these oils are used to anoint people in the sacraments, they are symbolic of Bishop Duca’s presence, even though he cannot be present at every Baptism, or Confirmation or Anointing of the Sick.
The blessing of oils is an extremely ancient tradition in the Church, as attested to in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus around 250 AD. In the early church, bishops consecrated the chrism at the Easter Vigil when catechumens were baptized, blessing the other oils at the same time. As the church grew, eventually blessing of the oils moved to the Holy Thursday evening celebration to allow time to distribute the oils from the cathedral to the parishes. For over a millennium bishops blessed oils at this Holy Thursday liturgy. In 1955, with Pope Pius XII’s reform of Holy Week, a separate Mass of Chrism was added to Holy Thursday earlier in the day. “If, however, it is difficult for the clergy and people to assemble at this time, the blessing may be transferred to an earlier day, but as close to Easter as possible.” This is done in our diocese: Chrism Mass is celebrated in the evening on Tuesday of Holy Week. At the end of Chrism Mass, the Holy Oils are brought back to the parishes of the diocese for use in the coming year.
All of the oils are olive oil. The Oil of Catechumens is used at Baptism to strengthen and purify catechumens before baptizing in water. The Oil of the Sick is used in Anointing of the Sick to bring the strengthening and healing power of Christ. Sacred Chrism is a mixture of olive oil and fragrant balsam. Balsam is an oily, resinous and fragrant substance from plants. It symbolizes an innocent life and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Since Sacred Chrism consecrates and enables us to live out the call to follow Jesus the Christ (the anointed one), it is used:
• In Baptism to anoint the newly baptized on the crown of the head.
• At Confirmation when the bishop anoints the forehead of the confirmand.
• In Holy Orders when the bishop anoints the hands of the candidate to the priesthood; the bishop anoints the head of a priest being consecrated a bishop.
• To consecrate the altar and anoint the walls in the dedication ceremony of a church.
The bishop mixes the balsam into the oil for Sacred Chrism and breathes over the open vessel in the sign of the cross. This is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who blew over the face of the waters before creation (Gen 1:2b), and of the risen Jesus, who appeared to his disciples and breathed on them saying “Receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20:22-23). It is the Holy Spirit who consecrates this oil through the bishop’s invocation.
The large urns for the holy oils and the small bottles that transport the oils back to the parishes bear the initials of their Latin names:
OS Oleum Sanctum Oil of Catechumens
OI Oleum Infirmorum Oil of the Sick
SC Sanctum Chrisma Sacred Chrism
The holy oils are presented to and received by the local parish community with the rite Reception of the Holy Oils. The reception of the holy oils may take place before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday or on another day after the celebration of Chrism Mass. The holy oils, in suitable vessels, are carried in procession by members of the assembly. The oils are received by the priest and are then placed on a suitably prepared table in the sanctuary or in the repository where they will be reserved. The holy oils are kept in a special glass cabinet called an ambry, usually located close to the baptismal font. It reminds all who see it of the anointing which unites and strengthens us to live as one body in Christ, and comes to us through the ministry of his Church.
Holy oils are kept in a special glass cabinet called the ambry.
Pope Paul VI added acknowledgment of the ministry of priests to Chrism Mass, highlighting Chrism Mass as a manifestation of the priests’ communion with the bishop. Standing before the bishop, priests renew their commitment to priestly service, promising fidelity in fulfilling their office in the Church.
Chrism Mass is a celebration of the entire Christian community:
• a community that gathers around Bishop Duca as one body made up of many parts, with Christ as its head,
• a community whose oneness comes from its union with the crucified and risen Jesus—God’s anointed one—through Baptism,
• a community that shares in the riches and consolation of Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit through the sacramental ministry of its Bishop and priests.
Enter more fully into Holy Week and the liturgical life of the diocese by participating in the celebration of Chrism Mass on: Tuesday, April 15 at 6:00 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. A reception follows Chrism Mass in the Multi Room of the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans.