Countless will be anointed with holy oil throughout the year, but the oils' meaning, how they’re prepared and stored is often unknown by the average person in the pew.
At the annual Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock April 15, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor blessed a supply of chrism, oil of catechumens and oil of the sick to be used by all priests in the Diocese of Little Rock for the next 12 months.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the symbolism of anointing with oil also signifies the Holy Spirit, to the point of becoming a synonym for the Holy Spirit.” They are used in both sacraments and blessings.
“The sacraments in which these oils will be used are all moments of personal encounter with the Lord not only for our own personal benefit and consolation, but also for the purpose of mission, of being sent forth: empowered in the sacrament of confirmation, healed through the anointing of the sick and ordained to serve in holy orders,” Bishop Taylor said in his Chrism Mass homily.
On the day of the Chrism Mass, pastors will receive their blessed oils for the year. According to “The Catholic Source Book,” traditionally olive oil is used, but in 1970 the Church approved that oil from any plant can be used when olive oil is not available. Father Jack Vu, rector of the Cathedral and pastor of St. Patrick Church in North Little Rock, said in his native Vietnam, they often use vegetable oil.
“For the people in the Middle East, the Holy Land, they will tell you how the olive oil and olive is used, nothing is thrown away. The wood they carve, the leaves they use for medicines, the olive they use for oil,” Father Vu said. “It is also in the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed.”
Chrism is used in baptisms, confirmation and holy orders, as well as consecrating a new church and altar, according to the “Source Book.” It is the only holy oil out of the three to be consecrated and include a fragrance, which alludes to 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, when Paul refers to an “aroma of holiness” metaphor.
The oil of the sick and the oil of catechumens are used for anointing.
In the Diocese of Little Rock, the Cathedral purchases the oil and each priest contributes to the final bill. Cathedral secretary Shawn Hallman said the olive oil for all parishes cost $611 this year.
While everything from parish candles to Eucharistic bread and wine is traditionally ordered from a Catholic entity, the oil can be picked up at the nearest bulk grocery store.
“It’s so easy. We go to Sam’s (Club). Because the way we do over here, it’s the level of the quality, along with the quantity,” Father Vu said.
This year six cases of olive oil were purchased, or a total of about 28 gallons. During the Chrism Mass, Bishop Taylor blesses three large glass canisters filled with olive oil. To make the chrism oil, the fragrance is added and the bishop breathes on the oil, symbolizing the Holy Spirit coming down and consecrating the oil. The bishop also, “invites all the priests to extend and bless the (chrism) oil together with him,” Father Vu said.
Hallman said the fragrance, Laudate Chrism Essence, is ordered from The Holy Rood Guild, based in Massachusetts. The aromatic oils blend mixes with three gallons of olive oil to produce the Chrism fragrance, according to holyroodguild.com. The cathedral typically purchases at least one bottle, which is $78.
Because not all of the oil can be brought to the altar for a blessing, Father Vu said “before the Mass starts, I ask bishop, ‘When you bless the oil you remember in your intentions, bless all the oil that is (being stored) in the hall.’”
After the oil is blessed during Mass, the rest of the liturgy continues, but a group of volunteers is hard at work in McDonald Hall pouring the oils into special containers provided by each parish. In past years, a small group of seminarians or transitional deacons have been in charge of dispersing the oils. This year, about 10 members of the new Cathedral Knights of Columbus Council #16947, diaconate candidates and others were chosen.
“We started off with a prayer to get in the right mindset, ask the Blessed Mother to guide us by the hand,” said knight Marc Rios, pointing out the swift but peaceful aura of the group.
Cardboard was taped to the floor, and plastic tablecloths lined the three tables so if any chrism spilled, the materials could be burned. Learning from past years, Deacon Tim Costello, diocesan minister to deacons, said there were three stations, two people to focus on each type of oil, minimizing the chance of spills while passing the bottles.
“It’s like an assembly line instead of one individual going to each one to fill up theirs. They are the professionals on the oil of the infirm, they’re the professionals on the oil of the catechumens … and if you need oil of the sacred chrism, go to these guys,” he said with a smile.
As knight David McElyea manned the large jug in front of him, carefully pressing the spigot to not overfill the small glass container with chrism, he laughed trying to recall how many bottles for the parishes he’d completed so far, guessing around 10.
“It’s an honor. I don’t know how I was chosen for it, but I’m really proud to be a part of the process,” McElyea said.
A variety of containers lined the tables — all sizes of leather or wooden cases worn from years of use, to simple plastic bins labeled by parish — and were ready before Mass concluded, for the priests and deacons to pick up.
“As soon as Mass is over they pile in. If we don’t have this out of the way ...” Rios laughed, but the containers were filled by the time the priests flooded in to search for their parish supply.
If a parish runs out of holy oil, they can contact the Cathedral for more. While the amount of oil needed can depend on the size of a parish, it also can vary by ministry. Those who minister in hospitals need more oil of the sick, while the bishop needs more chrism oil, Father Vu said.
“This is holy. It’s blessed oil that everyone is treating with care. It’s sacred,” Rios said.
Traditionally, parishes store the oil in an ambry, in Latin “armaria” meaning cupboard. This is usually carved into the sanctuary wall. It can be labeled “O.S.,” Latin for “olea sancta,” holy oils, the “Source Book” stated. Each container is then labeled: Oil of the Sick, “O.I.,” Latin for “Oleum Infirmorum”; Oil of Catechumens, “O.C.,” Latin for “Oleum Catechumenorum.” It is also known as the oil of the saints; and Chrism, “S.C.,” Latin for “Sacrum Chrisma.”
Dr. Joseph Pabian Jr., who built the ambry at St. Patrick Church in North Little Rock, followed in the footsteps of his father.
“The ambry that’s in the sacristy by the temporary tabernacle is the one my dad made in the 1950s,” he said. For the new ambry that he built last Easter, he used ash wood he had left over from making water skis back in the 1960s.
“It was perfect. I knew I was saving it for a reason,” Pabian said, adding “it is special” to have made his parish’s ambry.
Any unused chrism from the previous year must be burned, Father Vu said. This can be done anywhere, but some priests “pour it into the Holy Saturday, blessing of the fire” before Easter Vigil Mass.
Because the oil of the sick and catechumens is merely blessed olive oil with no additional fragrance added and is not consecrated like the chrism oil, it can be thrown away or used for other purposes.
“It’s unity; in oneness because the body of Christ is one. The Church is the body of Christ,” Father Vu said of the holy oils. “… The matter of the oil in the past, in biblical time it is of healing. And so here we have the culture, the history and we also have sacramental … You anoint with the spirit, meaning the spirit comes into you.”
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