Toward the end of every season of Lent, in every diocese of the world, the bishop gathers with his priests and other members of the faithful to bless three oils. They are called the oil of catechumens, the oil of the sick, and the chrism. After these oils are blessed and consecrated by the bishop, they are delivered to each parish for use during various liturgies throughout the year.
The oil of catechumens, also called holy oil, is used during certain rites of the initiation process of unbaptized adults, and may also be used at the baptism of infants. The oil of the sick is used during the celebration of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The chrism oil is used at the baptism of infants, at confirmation, at the ordination of priests and bishops, and at the dedication of a church and altar. Chrism oil is also pleasantly scented, to indicate its special character among the three oils. Parishes traditionally kept these three oils locked in a wall safe, called an ambry, in the sanctuary of each church, although today many parishes display the oils so that they are visible to all, and are therefore a public reminder of the Church’s prayer on those occasions when these oils are used.
Anointing in the liturgical sense means to apply oil to a person or to a church or altar. This action of anointing is symbolic, signifying the Church’s prayer that some effect will take place, either within the person, or in the way others will perceive that person or object. Anointing is ancient in its origins. It did not begin with Judaism or Christianity, but traces its beginnings to particular customs in the Near East.
Just as is the case with every liturgical symbol, anointing has many layers of meaning. A general sense of the meaning of the Church’s anointings can be found in the words that accompany each anointing. Catechumens are anointed to express the Church’s prayer that they will be strengthened by Christ’s power to understand the gospel more deeply and to accept the challenges of Christian life. The anointing with the oil of the sick expresses the Church’s prayer that the ill will be healed in body, soul and spirit, and be delivered from every affliction. On such occasions the anointing also manifests the Church’s desire to be united in prayer and faith with the sick person.
Chrism oil reminds the parents and godparents of a baptized infant that this child is now marked forever with the dignity of a member of Christ. The anointing at confirmation signifies that the candidate is sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. At the anointing of a priest the church prays that the candidate may be “preserved to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.” The anointing of a bishop prays that the candidate be further enriched with spiritual blessings. Here there are obvious parallels with the ancient custom of anointing those who have the responsibility of being leaders of people. The anointing of an altar and church building prays that these symbolic structures, like the people who use them, will be “visible signs of the mystery of Christ and his Church.”