Why Only One Chrism Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Why Only One Chrism Mass


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q: I recently heard of a diocese with two co-cathedrals having two Chrism Masses each year. Is this proper, given the fact it seems to take away from the sign of the oneness of the diocesan celebration? Are their any norms or standard practices for dioceses with two cathedrals in regards to Chrism Masses? — D.T., Dallas, Texas

A: Apart from the rubrics in the Missal, the essential norms regarding this point are found in the Congregation for Divine Worship's 1988 circular letter on the Easter celebrations, "Paschales Solemnitatis." Regarding the Chrism Mass, this document says:

"35. The Chrism Mass, which the bishop concelebrates with his presbyterium and at which the holy chrism is consecrated and the oils blessed, manifests the communion of the priests with their bishop in the same priesthood and ministry of Christ. The priests who concelebrate with the bishop should come to this Mass from different parts of the diocese, thus showing in the consecration of the chrism to be his witnesses and cooperators, just as in their daily ministry they are his helpers and counselors.

"The faithful are also to be encouraged to participate in this Mass, and to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.

"Traditionally the Chrism Mass is celebrated on the Thursday of Holy Week. If, however, it should prove to be difficult for the clergy and people to gather with the bishop, this rite can be transferred to another day, but one always close to Easter. The chrism and the oil of catechumens is to be used in the celebration of the sacraments of initiation on Easter night.

"36. There should be only one celebration of the Chrism Mass given its significance in the life of the diocese, and it should take place in the cathedral or, for pastoral reasons, in another church which has a special significance.

"The holy oils can be brought to the individual parishes before the celebration of the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper or at some other suitable time. This can be a means of catechizing the faithful about the use and effects of the holy oils and chrism in Christian life."

Similar norms are found in the Ceremonial of Bishops, Nos. 274-278.

All of the relevant documents emphasize the importance of this Mass as an expression of the unity of the entire local Church; as many faithful and clergy as possible should be present. This is the principal reason why there must be only one chrism Mass in any diocese.

It is precisely in order to foment and optimize this unity that the norms grant flexibility regarding the time and place of the celebration.

Thus, in extensive dioceses where priests might not be able to reach the cathedral and get back on time for the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, it is common to celebrate the Chrism Mass on Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.

Likewise, when the cathedral is unsuitable for a major concelebration, another major church is chosen. In Rome, for example, the Chrism Mass is celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica rather than St. John Lateran, in order to cater for a multitude of concelebrants. Some ancient European cathedrals are so full of untouchable historic monuments that large concelebrations are a logistical nightmare.

The presence of con-cathedrals (or co-cathedrals) is not sufficient to justify breaking up the unity of the celebration. A con-cathedral is usually a church that once served as a cathedral but no longer serves this purpose. This can happen in several ways, such as when the bishop changes his principal town of residence; when dioceses are amalgamated; or when a new and definitive cathedral is built.

The presence of several cathedrals happens frequently in Italy; some modern dioceses embrace several extinct, ancient but tiny sees. For example, in the Archdiocese of Sorrento-Castellamare, I know of at least five churches that have the title of cathedral, including one on the isle of Capri which once had its own bishop. In this diocese, however, there is only one principal cathedral and only one Chrism Mass.

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Follow-up: Why Only One Chrism Mass [3-30-2010]

Somewhat related to the question regarding two Chrism Masses (see March 16) is one from a Brighton, England, reader regarding how to store the holy oils. The reader asked: "I want to display the three oils. I have been told one should be elevated. If this is true, which one should be elevated (of the three)?"

We dealt in part with this question on Oct. 4, 2005. Since the practice of visibly displaying the holy oils is of very recent coinage, there are practically no official norms describing the manner of their reservation.

The U.S. bishops in their document "Built of Living Stones" do establish some parameters:

"The Place for the Sacred Oils

"§ 117 § The consecrated oil of chrism for initiation, ordination, and the dedication of churches, as well as the blessed oils of the sick and of catechumens, are traditionally housed in a special place called an ambry or repository. These oils consecrated or blessed by the bishop at the Mass of Chrism deserve the special care of the community to which they have been entrusted. The style of the ambry may take different forms. A parish church might choose a simple, dignified, and secure niche in the baptistry or in the wall of the sanctuary or a small case for the oils. Cathedrals responsible for the care of a larger supply of the oils need a larger ambry. Since bright light or high temperatures can hasten spoilage, parishes will want to choose a location that helps to preserve the freshness of the oil."

Thus, no official document requires elevating one of the oils. Should a parish for aesthetic or pastoral reasons desire to elevate one of them in the ambry, the obvious candidate is the sacred chrism. This is because of its important part in baptism and ordination and its essential role in confirmation.

It is also the only oil that must be blessed by the bishop in both Eastern and Western liturgical traditions. The other oils are either habitually blessed by the priest, as in most Eastern Churches, or at least may be blessed by a priest in emergencies, as is the case for the oil for anointing the sick in the Roman rite.  


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