By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The annual Chrism Mass, where the bishop consecrates the new Oil of Chrism and blesses the new Oil of the Sick and the Oil for Catechumens for sacramental use during the coming year, is replete with symbolism, mystery and ritual. But what does it mean?
It all begins with olive oil. Until not so long ago, olive oil was a necessity of daily life among the Jews and in many parts of the world — used in preparing food, especially bread, burned as fuel for light and applied to sore muscles and joints as a healing agent. Oil was also used in anointing kings and priests, the heads of guests as a sign of welcome, to beautify one’s self and to prepare a body for burial.
Additionally, the ancient Jews used olive oil to consecrate the Ark of the Covenant, the meeting tent and its table, lampstand, laver (wash basin), altars of incense and of holocausts, and in the offering of sacrifices.
There are numerous references to oil and anointing in both the Old and New Testaments — the Books of Exodus, Samuel and Psalm 23 as well as all four Gospels mention anointing and oils. The Judaic tradition of cleansing with sacred oils was re-instituted by Jesus Christ – the word “Christ,” (Christos in Greek) means the anointed one– as the outward sign of the Holy Spirit’s life-affirming power. When Christianity began to spread and flourish, rituals and rites practiced by Christians were rooted in Judaism.
This includes the use of sacred oils in the administration of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders.
As the April 6 Mass began, two by two, diocesan and religious order priests, deacons and seminarians processed to the front of sanctuary, then separated and went to the rear of the sanctuary where they were seated. Bishop James V. Johnston. Jr., as principle celebrant, joined by Fathers Charles Rowe, Vicar General for Pastoral Affairs; Father Ken Riley, Vicar General and Chancellor; Bishop Emeritus John Leibrecht of Springfield – Cape Girardeau and Abbot Benedict Neenan, O.S.B. of Conception Abbey concelebrating, entered the sanctuary. They were assisted by Deacons Rick Boyle of the Church of the Good Shepherd and Jim Olshefski of St. Charles Borromeo Parish.
In his homily, Bishop Johnston recounted a conversation with a non-Christian college student on a recent flight. The young man asked the bishop why he had become a priest.
“When telling my vocation story,” the bishop said, “I am used to speaking to Christians … who have a sense of what I am talking about and where I am coming from … can identify for the most part with my experience. Here was a young man to which all of that was totally foreign. I was starting from scratch.
“So, I spoke about God and love. That each of us was made for love: to be loved and to give love. Without love, human beings are miserable. We were made for love … we intuitively know this even if we have no religious faith. The greatest things in life are those … that involve love: friendships … family relationships … God is Love and he has made us for this purpose. He is infinite love … the essence and nature of his being—unlimited, infinite, overflowing love, which must create and give. And Christians believe that this moved God to not only create everything but to also become man to reveal this most important truth to us in person. That is who Jesus is.
“I … experienced this love personally, and was so moved by it that I wanted to give love back to God and to others, and that was why I became a priest. Having been known and loved by God in Jesus, I wanted to respond.
“The young man was respectful … asked me about suffering, the homeless … he often comes across the suffering and the homeless but does not know what to do … they need … love, like all of us. I suggested that he simply show them kindness … acknowledge them, because many, out of fear, do not even acknowledge the poor… like all of us, they long for attention, affection from other people; to know… they matter. Basic human kindness … from this we begin to see what else we need to do for them.”
As they left the plane … the young man concluded by saying: “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
Bishop Johnston continued, “Sometimes we get absorbed in work and our own lives and forget what is at the heart of everything.
“In tonight’s first reading, Isaiah prophesies: ‘The Lord has anointed me [and] sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners . . . to announce a year of favor . . . a day of vindication . . . to replace mourning with gladness.’ “In the Gospel (Luke 4:16-21), Jesus affirms that he is the fulfillment of this prophecy.
“In other words, God’s love has broken definitively into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. We are brought into it and made sharers in it and instruments of it. As partakers of divine life, in the words of the apostle Peter, we are anointed too, and sent as priests, kings and prophets of divine love. Each in our own way within the Body of Christ.”
He added that the oils to be blessed that night would be tied to Christ’s identity in the sacraments through which God’s grace is operative.
“Jesus extends his anointing to us through the Holy Spirit. We are healed, we are sealed, we are configured, words which describe the action of God in us by grace. The oils are part of the outward sign of that grace. They will be used in the coming year in the celebration of the sacraments to accomplish God’s saving work in us and in those whom he calls into his Church, his Body, his Family.
“All the baptized share in the priesthood of Christ … we who are ordained to the ministerial priesthood share in it in a way that is different in both its essence and in degree … a way that is significant for serving and building up the entire Body of Christ. The ministerial priesthood serves the priesthood of the laity, equipping the entire body for mission and growth on holiness.
“Years ago, priests promised their lives to the vocation the Lord called them to. Each year they renew their promises, recommit themselves to carrying them out, and call upon the lay faithful to support them with prayers.
“This Mass reminds us that the love of God has entered our lives and made them new and given them a definitive meaning and direction. At the center of it all is the infinite, burning, divine Love that was made visible in Jesus. This love that is the source of everything, and the thing that we were made for. Something, indeed, to think about.”
Following the homily, the many priests present stood to renew their commitment to priestly service and their ordination vows.
Members of the Knights of Columbus Color Guard processed up the center aisle and stood at attention as pairs of deacons followed to bring the silver vessels of oil to the bishop. As each vessel was brought up, a Knight called out the name of the oil: Oil of the Sick, Oil for Catechumens and Oil of Chrism.
Pure olive oil, the oils for the Catechumens and the Sick were blessed by Bishop Johnston, and then taken to the rear of the Cathedral, where they would be poured into glass bottles for the priests to take back to their parishes for sacramental use in the coming year.
The silver vessel of Oil of Chrism was brought forward. The olive oil and balsam, which gives the oil its distinctive sweet fragrance, were already mixed. Symbolically, Bishop Johnston infused the Oil of Chrism with the Holy Spirit by breathing into it. The new Oil of Chrism was later poured into glass bottles like the other holy oils for dispersal.
The Oil for Catechumens and the Oil of Chrism are both used in Baptism, one of the three Sacraments of Initiation. The breastbone of the infant or adult to be baptized is anointed with the Oil for Catechumens before the actual baptism by water occurs. Then the newly baptized is anointed on the crown of the head with the Oil of Chrism as a sign that he/she now shares in the priesthood of Christ.
The Oil of Chrism is used during the Sacrament of Confirmation to anoint the forehead of a confirmand, during the Sacrament of Holy Orders to anoint the hands of a priest at his ordination and the head and hands of a bishop at his consecration.
The “new” oils were later brought to the parishes by the priests and stored until needed. They are not supposed to be displayed, but kept under lock and key. The “old” oils are traditionally burned or poured into the ground where they will not be trampled as they are holy.