|ROME, 4 OCT. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Can an altar be used to house and display the vessels containing the
holy oils blessed during the Chrism Mass, i.e., in the same fashion as a
reliquary is sometimes housed behind a metal grille within an altar
(like those of St. Pius X and Blessed John XXIII in the Vatican
— J.T., Clifton, England
A: Official norms regarding the storage of the holy oils are somewhat
scant. The Rite of the Blessing of Oils and Consecrating the Chrism
27-28 indicates that in the sacristy after the Chrism Mass the bishop
may instruct the presbyters about the reverent use and safe custody of
the holy oils.
There is a growing practice in the Church of visibly displaying the holy
oils. These are usually stored, locked, in a niche in the sanctuary wall
called an ambry or aumbry.
Apart from the presbytery the ambry is often located near the baptismal
font and this is most appropriate in churches with a distinct
baptistery. The ambry may also sometimes be placed within the sacristy.
The oils are usually kept in silver or pewter vessels, albeit these
often have glass interiors for the sake of practicality. Each vessel
should also have some inscription indicating the contents such as CHR
(Chrism), CAT (Catechumens) or O.I. ("oleum infirmorum").
The visible display of the holy oils, by means of a grille of a
transparent door, does not seem to present a particular problem and in
some cases serves to avoid exchanging an ambry for a tabernacle. If the
door is opaque it should usually have an indication either near or upon
it saying "Holy oils."
The use of an altar as an ambry in the manner described in your question
would detract from the centrality of the altar. I do not consider it
There is also no precedent for such a practice in the tradition of the
Church as she has usually only placed the relics of the saints beneath
It might be acceptable, however, to locate an ambry above an old side
altar no longer used for celebrating the Eucharist. But placing it below
would likely lead to having the oils confused with relics.
Stretching the issue, one could even adduce a certain historical
precedent in the fact that, in some ancient churches, when the
tabernacle was almost universally transferred to the high altar after
the 16th century, the former wall tabernacle was used to store the holy
Apart from the holy oils stored in the ambry, priests may also keep
smaller stocks on hand of the oil for anointing the sick. ZE05100420
* * *
Follow-up: Storage of Holy Oils [10-18-2005]
Pursuant to our replies regarding the public display of the holy oils
(Oct. 4) several questions turned upon their proper use outside of the
Several readers asked if holy oils may be used in blessings in lieu of
holy water or for other paraliturgical acts, for example, in retreats or
commissioning ceremonies in which teachers or catechists are anointed.
The question is difficult to respond to from the viewpoint of official
documents as, in all probability, it probably had never entered into
anybody's head that such things would occur.
Apart from the use of holy oils for the sacraments, the sacred chrism is
also used by the bishop in solemnly dedicating a church and an altar.
Apart from these, the official rituals of the Church do not foresee
other uses for the holy oils.
One official document refers to the incorrect use of anointing by lay
people. In the Instruction "On Certain Questions Regarding the
Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the
Priest" (1997), Article 9 states:
"The non-ordained faithful particularly assist the sick by being with
them in difficult moments, encouraging them to receive the Sacraments of
Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, by helping them to have the
disposition to make a good individual confession as well as to prepare
them to receive the Anointing of the Sick. In using sacramentals, the
non-ordained faithful should ensure that these are in no way regarded as
sacraments whose administration is proper and exclusive to the Bishop
and to the priest. Since they are not priests, in no instance may the
non-ordained perform anointings either with the Oil of the Sick or any
This document certainly only refers to a very specific case but it
encapsulates an important principle: that of not creating confusion
regarding the sacramental signs.
Some sacramental signs have but one meaning and are never repeated even
for devotional purposes. For example, baptism's unrepeatable nature
precludes the repetition of the rite although a person could devoutly
renew his baptismal promises on his anniversary.
Other signs, such as the laying on of hands, have more than one meaning
and may be used in several contexts. It can mean consecration and the
gift of the Holy Spirit in the rites of ordination and confirmation,
forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation, and healing in the
sacrament of anointing as well as within the extra-sacramental context
of some recent spiritual currents such as the charismatic renewal.
The case of anointing is closer to the first case (baptism) than the
second. Although there might be no explicit prohibition, liturgical law
usually presupposes a certain degree of common sense. And the use of
holy oil, or any other oil, for extra-sacramental anointing can only
lead to inappropriate confusion with the sacramental rites as such.
It also ignores the fact that the Church already has a rich source of
rituals and prayers in the Book of Blessings which can easily be used or
adapted for practically every situation in which these oils have been
This does not mean that oil may never be used in any other Catholic
rituals. In some places, on the occasion of a particular feast in honor
of Mary or a saint, it is customary to celebrate a rite of blessings of
food or drink (including oil).
The Book of Blessings admonishes pastors to ensure that the faithful
have a correct understanding of the true meaning of such blessings so as
to avoid superstitions. ZE05101826