"A SERVICE of great solemnity and beauty takes place in every cathedral church [at the chrism mass] each year. The Bishop blesses the oils which are to be used during the ensuing year in the administration of the Sacraments, as well as in various consecrations and blessings of persons and things.
The ceremony of the Blessing of the Oils is full of significant symbolism. It requires the presence of a large number of the clergy, for the sacred oils are considered by the Church to be of such importance as to call for... an imposing ceremonial. Few inanimate things receive more ... honor than the oils which are to be used so often during the year in the imparting of God's grace through Sacraments and blessings.
Each of us Catholics has received already some of the benefits given through these holy oils, namely, in the ceremonies of Baptism and in the conferring of the Sacrament of Confirmation; and we hope some day to obtain further graces through them in Extreme Unction [the Sacrament of the Sick]; and yet it may be that we know little about them. Moreover, few of us are able to be present when the solemn blessing of them takes place in a cathedral church. Therefore this chapter will be devoted to a description of the nature, the uses, the history and the blessing of the Holy Oils.
In the countries of the Orient and in southern Europe, olive oil has always been a necessity of daily life, much more than with [Americans]. It enters into the preparation of food; it is used as a remedy, internally and externally; in past centuries it was the chief means of furnishing light, being consumed in lamps; it was employed in ancient times by the athletes of the Olympic games, to give suppleness to their muscles. Hence we see the various symbolic meanings of which the Church takes cognizance when she uses it to give us spiritual nourishment, to cure our spiritual ailments, to diffuse the light of grace in our souls, and to render us strong and active in the never-ending conflict with the Spirit of Evil. The use of oil to express the imparting of spiritual strength is so appropriate that the Church employs it not only for the anointing of living beings but also for bells and chalices and other ...things which are to be used as aids in the sanctification of her children.
The oils blessed [at chrism mass] are of three kinds --- the Oil of Catechumens, the Chrism and the Oil of the Sick. Each of them is oil extracted from olives, but the Chrism is distinguished from the others by having balm or balsam mixed with it.
Each of these is blessed by the Bishop with a special form of prayer, expressing the purpose for which it is to be used and its mystical signification as well.
This kind of sacred oil is used in the ceremonies of Baptism, and derives its name from that fact -- a catechumen being an instructed convert who is about to receive the Sacrament of Baptism. [During] the administration of that Sacrament [to a child,] the priest says "We anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Christ our Savior; may he strengthen you with his power, who lives and reigns for ever and ever." The priest makes with this oil the sign of the cross on the [breast of the] person who is to be baptized...
Why are these unctions [anointings] used? Because the catechumens are considered to be to some extent under the power of the Evil One until they have been united to Christ's mystical body, the Church, by Baptism." Sullivan, Externals of the Catholic Church (1917).
Facing the catechumens, the celebrant says:
The celebrant anoints each catechumen with the oil of catechumens on the breast or on both hands or, if this seems desirable, even on other parts of the body." The Rites of the Catholic Church, volume IA, Initiation, Pueblo Publishing Co., NY (1976), pp. 85-87.
"The Chrism is generally held to be the matter or essential substance for the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is applied by the Bishop in the form of a cross on the forehead of the person confirmed. It is used also in the ceremonies of Baptism, an unction [an anointing] being made with it on the crown of the head immediately after the pouring of the water. Its use is required also in the consecration of a Bishop, and [the ordination of a priest. Baptism makes us sharers in the priesthood of christ. Chrism, which is also used in ordination, brings forward this truth. All those who share in Christ's priesthood, share with him, each at their own level, Christ's role in teaching, sanctifying and leading his people.]
The use of balsam in the Chrism dates from about the sixth century. Balsam is a resinous substance which is procured from terebinth trees, which grow in Judea and Arabia; and similar substances of even greater excellence are obtained from various plants in the West Indies and tropical countries. In some Oriental rites, a great variety of sweet-smelling spices and perfumes are used in addition to the balsam.
The mixing of this fragrant material with the sacred oil gives the latter the name of Chrism, which signifies a scented ointment. As oil typifies the fullness of grace imparted through the Sacrament, so balsam expresses freedom from corruption and the sweet odor of virtue." Sullivan, Externals of the Catholic Church (1917).
If an adult is baptized, but not immediately confirmed, then the priest says:
1241. "The anointing with sacred chrism, perfumed OIL consecrated by the bishop, signifies the gift of the HOLY Spirit to the newly baptized, who has become a Christian, that is, one 'anointed' by the HOLY Spirit, incorporated into Christ who is anointed priest, prophet, and king." Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This sacrament is normally celebrated by either the bishop, or a priest during the Easter Vigil service when adults are fully received into the Catholic Church. This sacrament releases the Holy Spirit into the life of the person.
"The minister of the sacrament dips his right thumb in the chrism and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one to be confirmed as he says:
The Rites of the Catholic Church, volume IA, Initiation, Pueblo Publishing Co., NY (1976), pp. 160, 164.
This sacred oil, called in Latin "Oleum Infirmorum," is the "matter" or necessary substance for the Sacrament of [The Sacrament of the Sick, formerly known as] Extreme Unction... In the Churches which follow the Latin rite this oil is always pure, without admixture; but in some Eastern Churches it contains a little wine or ashes.
As regards the use of this oil in The Sacrament of the Sick, we know that it was employed in Apostolic times practically in the same manner as now. St. James, in his Epistle, thus instructs the faithful of the early Church: "Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up. And if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him." James 5:14-15, see Mark 6:13. [These links are to the NIV at Bible Gateway.)
The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed OIL - pressed from olives or from other plants - saying, only once: 'Through this Holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.'" Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The liturgical use of oil for other purposes, as in the ceremonies of Baptism and Holy Orders and in other blessings and consecrations mentioned above, is, in nearly every case, of very ancient origin, being often traceable nearly to the times of the Apostles. In this, as in many other practices, our Church has retained and made use of something which had been employed in the ritual of Judaism; for in the Old Testament we find mention of the anointing with oil in several religious functions, such as the consecration of priests and kings, as well as in sacrifices, legal purifications and the consecration of altars.
When our Church wishes to use any material object for sacred functions she usually sets it apart from other things by giving it a special blessing; thus it is distinguished from substances intended only for ordinary purposes. As regards oil, such blessings are recorded in the rituals of very early times, and do not differ greatly from those given at the present day. Even as far back as the fourth century two kinds of oil were solemnly blessed on Holy Thursday for sacramental uses, one being pure and the other mixed with balsam; the first was what we now call the Oil of Catechumens, and the other was the Chrism. The third kind, the Oil of the Sick, was consecrated by a more simple formula either on that day or at other times, and in some parts of the world it was customary to have this oil blessed as needed, by priests.
The priests of the various parishes,[after the chrism mass], obtain a sufficient quantity of the three Oils for the needs of their churches and people. In each parish church these consecrated Oils are kept with great care and reverence, being enclosed in suitable metallic bottles, which are preserved in an ambry or locked box (old English aumery," from the French " armoire," a safe or arms-chest), affixed to the wall of the sanctuary. The Oil of Catechumens is usually labeled O. C. or O. S. (" Oleum Catechumenorum" or "Oleum Sanctum"); the Chrism is distinguished by the letters S. C. (" Sanctum Chrisma"); and the Oil of the Sick (" Oleum Infirmorum") bears the initials O. I.
The unused oils which may be left over from the preceding year are not to be used for any Sacrament or any liturgical purpose. They are poured into the sanctuary lamp, and are consumed as ordinary oil.
This necessarily incomplete account of the beautiful ceremonies of [the Church involving the holy oils] will show us the value which the Church attaches to these Holy Oils. She requires for their consecration a wealth of ritual which testifies to her appreciation of their importance in her liturgy; and she offers them a degree of homage which should teach us how holy and how efficacious for our salvation is this lifeless substance which she, inspired by her Divine Founder, consecrates for the benefit of us, her children, that through its use in Sacrament and in blessing we may receive graces which we need for the saving of our souls."
The photos of oil in glass containers are by Roger Smith.
This material is presented here for religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended.
Additional information may be found at the Catholic Encyclopedia under the following topics. Remember that this was written long before the Second Vatican Council and may contain unedited outdated information. Holy Oils, chrism, Catechumen, confirmation, baptism, anointing of the sick (a.k.a. Extreme Unction).