Storage of the Holy Oils

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Storage of the Holy Oils

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 basilica)? — 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 appropriate.

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 the altar.

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 oils.

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

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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 sacraments themselves.

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 other oil."

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 adopted.

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

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