Oils in an Emergency

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Oils in an Emergency

ROME, MAY 22, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Could a priest bless paraffin oil in hospitals for emergency baptism, confirmation and the sacrament for the sick? This is the type of non-animal oil that is normally found in hospitals easily. I believe it is distilled from petroleum. Will the three sacraments given with such oil be valid because the proper oil is unavailable in emergencies? Second, what if a simple blessing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is given for the oil because the blessing formulae were unavailable, will the three sacraments for the seriously sick be still valid? — J.T., Taiwan

A: There are several questions involved here.

First, what oils are we referring to? For the sacraments the Catholic Church blesses three separate oils during the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday. The oil of catechumens is used for the non-essential complementary rites of baptism. The oil of the sick constitutes the matter of the sacrament of anointing of the sick. And then there is chrism, which is the essential matter of the sacrament of confirmation and is also used during the complementary rites of baptism, priestly ordination and some other rites such as the dedication of a Church or altar.

The basic ingredient of the first two oils is olive oil; only the formula of blessing distinguishes one from the other. Chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balsam.

Of these three, only in the case of the oil of the sick is there foreseen the possibility of another oil being used and of the priest's blessing the oil in case of emergency. Pope Paul VI brought about this possibility in the 1972 apostolic constitution Sacram Unctione Infirmorum. Referring to the matter of the sacrament the Holy Father established:

"Further, since olive oil, which hitherto had been prescribed for the valid administration of the sacrament, is unobtainable or difficult to obtain in some parts of the world, we decreed, at the request of numerous bishops, that in the future, according to the circumstances, oil of another sort could also be used, provided it were obtained from plants, inasmuch as this more closely resembles the matter indicated in Holy Scripture."

He also permitted that priests could bless this oil in case of emergency. This norm was later incorporated into Canon 999 of the Code of Canon Law which determines who may bless the oil:

"In addition to a bishop, the following can bless the oil to be used in the anointing of the sick: 1) those equivalent to a diocesan bishop by law; 2) any presbyter in a case of necessity, but only in the actual celebration of the sacrament.

"Canon 1000 §1. The anointings with the words, order, and manner prescribed in the liturgical books are to be performed carefully. In a case of necessity, however, a single anointing on the forehead or even on some other part of the body is sufficient, while the entire formula is said."

In those cases where the priest has blessed the oil himself for a particular situation, No. 22 of the Order for the Pastoral Care of the sick stipulates, "If any of the oil is left after the celebration of the sacrament, it should be absorbed in cotton (cotton wool) and burned."

Unlike the case of the sacrament of the sick, Canon 880 §2 states, "The chrism to be used in the sacrament of confirmation must be consecrated by a bishop even if a presbyter administers the sacrament."

There are less-specific norms regarding the oil of catechumens because this oil is not essential to the sacrament and in an emergency it is sufficient to baptize with water using the Trinitarian formula. At the same time, the ritual foresees the possibility of carrying out all the rites in an abbreviated form.

If a person who receives an emergency baptism survives, the post-baptismal complementary rites (anointing with chrism, the white garment, and baptismal candle) are usually carried out at a convenient date in a church or oratory.

Therefore, to answer the specific questions of our reader:

— Paraffin oil is not suitable as valid material for any sacrament. If olive oil is unavailable for anointing the sick, another vegetable oil may be used. Chrism and the oil of catechumens must be that blessed by the bishop. It is thus incumbent on the parish priest and hospital chaplain to make sure that he has all three oils readily available.

— Only the oil of the sick may be blessed by a priest in emergency cases. One of the three formulas for blessing this oil must be used as appropriate in order to assure validity. The third formula, for exceptional circumstances, is the briefest: "Bless + Lord, your gift of oil and our brother/sister N., that it may bring him/her relief." It would not be sufficient to make a generic blessing with no mention of the context of the sacrament of the sick.

* * *

Follow-up: Oils in an Emergency [6-5-2012]

In the wake of our comments on blessing of holy oils by a priest (see May 22), an attentive reader called my attention to an oversight on my part regarding the blessing of the oil of catechumens. To wit:

"Regarding the Oil of Catechumens, the general 'Rite of Blessing of Oils, Rite of Consecrating the Chrism,' found in an appendix in the previous English Sacramentary, in No. 7 of the introduction does mention the possibility of a priest blessing the Oil of Catechumens for 'pastoral reasons.' This permission is also found in the RCIA, at No. 101 in the U.S. English edition (or No. 129 of the Latin original)."

The text of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says, "The oil used for this rite is to be the oil blessed by the bishop at the chrism Mass, but for pastoral reasons a priest celebrant may bless oil for the rite immediately before the anointing."

Another reader asked about the mixing of blessed and unblessed oil for the sacraments. We addressed this question in an earlier response and follow-up on Jan. 30 and Feb. 13, 2007.

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