Externals of the Catholic Church – The Holy Oils

A service of great solemnity and beauty takes place in every cathedral church on Holy Thursday of 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 extraordinary pomp and imposing ceremonial. Few inanimate things receive more homage and 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; 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.

The Symbolism of Oil

In the countries of the Orient and in southern Europe, olive oil has always been a necessity of daily life, much more than with us. 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 lifeless things which are to be used as aids in the sanctification of her children.

The oils blessed on Holy Thursday 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.

The Oil of Catechumens

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. As described in the chapter on the administration of that Sacrament, the priest makes with this oil the sign of the cross on the person who is to be baptized, on the breast and on the back between the shoulders, with the solemn words: “I anoint thee with the oil of salvation, in Christ Jesus our Lord, that thou mayest have everlasting life.”

Why are these unctions 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.

This oil is also employed for other purposes – in the ceremony of the “blessing of the font” or the baptismal water on Holy Saturday, in the consecration of a church, in the blessing of altars and altar-stones, in thd ordination of priests, and in the coronation of Catholic kings and queens.

The Holy Chrism

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 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 of a church, as well as in the blessing of chalices, patens, baptismal water and church bells.

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 n£me 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.

The Oil of the Sick

This sacred oil, called in Latin “Oleum Infirmorum,” is the “matter” or necessary substance for the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, and is also used in the blessing of bells. 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 Extreme Unction, we know that it was employed in Apostolic times practically in the same manner as now. Saint 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 die Lord shall raise him up. And if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.”

The use of oil as the “matter” of this Sacrament is undoubtedly of divine institution, entering as it does into the very nature of the Sacrament, which has been given to us by our Blessed Saviour and not by the Church.

Ancient Practices

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.

The use of oil in the “blessing of the font” or baptismal water probably does not go back to very early times. The practice of giving a special blessing to die water is indeed very ancient, dating from about the second century, but we have no evidence that at that period oil was mingled with it. It is therefore probable that the present mode of imparting the Church’s blessing to it is of more recent origin.

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. This custom has persevered to the present day in some Eastern rites, although among us, by Church law, the blessing by a Bishop is always necessary.

The Blessing of the Oils

The grand ceremony of Holy Thursday requires the presence of a large number of the clergy. Besides the Bishop and his immediate attendants, there are twelve priests wearing priests* vestments, seven who are vested as deacons, and seven others in the garb of subdeacons. The Bishop is robed in white vestments, and is the celebrant of the pontifical Mass, and he proceeds with the Mass in the usual manner until just before the Pater Noster. At this point the Oil of the Sick is called for by him and is solemnly brought in, contained in a large vessel of silver, by a subdeacon accompanied by two acolytes. The Bishop pronounces over it an exorcism to banish from it all influences of the Evil One. He then prays that the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, may come upon it, for the refreshing of mind and body, that it may be a remedy for all pains, infirmities and weaknesses.

The Mass then continues until after the Communion, when the solemn consecration of the Chrism and the Oil of Catechumens takes place. The oils are brought out from the sacristy by a procession made up of a censer-bearer, a subdeacon carrying a cross, two acolytes with lighted candles, two chanters, and all the priests, deacons and subdeacons enumerated above; two of the deacons carry the oils in large silver urns shrouded in veils, and a sub-deacon bears a vessel containing the balsam; the chanters intone several beautiful verses, which are repeated by the choir.

The Bishop then blesses, with appropriate prayers, the balsam which is to be mixed with the oil to form the Chrism – the “fragrant tear of dry bark,” as the ancient and beautiful language of the Pontifical expresses it. He then mixes it with a little of the oil, and recites another prayer, that “whosoever is outwardly anointed with this oil may be so anointed inwardly that he may be made a partaker of the Heavenly Kingdom.” He then breathes three times on the Chrism, and this is done also by the twelve priests. An exorcism is then recited over the oil, and a beautiful Preface is intoned by the Bishop, enumerating the sacred uses of oil in the Old Law , and invoking God’s blessing on this holy oil which is to be used as a chrism of salvation for those who “have been born again of water and the Holy Spirit.”

He then pours the mixed oil and balsam into the Chrism-vessel, and, bowing to the consecrated oil, he chants three times, in Latin, “Hail, Holy Chrism,” and reverently kisses the vessel – which salutation and homage are repeated a like number of times by each of the twelve priests.

Next comes the consecration of the Oil of Catechumens, which consists of an exorcism and a prayer of benediction. The Bishop then chants three times “Hail, Holy Oil,” and kisses the vessel containing it, all of which is repeated by each of the twelve priests. To the accompaniment of verses intoned by the choir the sacred oils are then solemnly borne back to the sacristy.

The Holy Oils in Our Churches

The priests of the various parishes, later in the day, 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 Holy Thursday 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.