My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Our fourth diocesan synod was officially opened in the context of our chrism Mass at the Cathedral on April 11. The various elements of the diocesan synod will take place over the next several months, culminating in the official closing of the synod on the Solemnity of Christ the King on Sunday, Nov. 26. The diocesan synod will set the direction and tone for the pastoral ministry of the parishes and other components of the diocese itself for the next several years, if not decades, to come.
One of the original reasons for scheduling the official opening of the synod in conjunction with the chrism Mass was that the chrism Mass is an occasion when most of our priests are present along with representatives of each of the parishes of the diocese. But as I was preparing my homily for this chrism Mass, it became clear to me in the course of my prayer that there is an important spiritual connection between the chrism Mass and the theme of our synod being focused on promoting discipleship and stewardship. If we consider the symbolism of the oils that are blessed and consecrated at the chrism Mass, we can gain a greater appreciation for their relationship to the discipleship and stewardship way of life.
At the chrism Mass in the cathedral of every diocese around the world during Holy Week, the diocesan bishop blesses or consecrates three kinds of oils: the oil of the sick, used in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick; the oil of catechumens, used to anoint those preparing to be baptized; and the sacred chrism, used to consecrate altars and church buildings and to consecrate people in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders.
The symbolism of oil is not as apparent in our modern context in Western culture as it used to be in the past, so some words of explanation may be helpful. In the countries of the Orient and in southern Europe, olive oil has always been a staple of daily life, much more than with Americans. It enters into the preparation of food; it is used as a remedy, internally and externally; in past centuries it was the chief means of furnishing light, being burned in lamps; it was employed in ancient times by the athletes of the Olympic games, to give flexibility to their muscles. Hence we see the various symbolic meanings employed by the church when she uses it to give us spiritual nourishment, to cure our spiritual ailments, to spread the light of grace in our souls, and to render us strong and active in the never-ending conflict with the spirit of evil. The use of oil to express the imparting of spiritual strength is so appropriate that the church employs it not only for the anointing of people, but also for altars and church buildings which are to be used to assist in the sanctification of the people of God.
The oils blessed or consecrated at the chrism Mass — the oil of catechumens, the oil of the sick, and the sacred chrism — are each made from oil extracted from olives, but the sacred chrism is distinguished from the others by having perfumed balm or sweetly-scented balsam mixed with it.
Catechumens are those who are preparing to be baptized. They are anointed with the oil of catechumens to strengthen them against temptation, since catechumens are considered to some extent to be under the power of the evil one until they have been united to Christ’s mystical body, the church, by baptism. The anointing with oil symbolizes their need for God’s help and strength so that, undeterred by the bonds of the past and overcoming the opposition of the devil, they will forthrightly take the step of professing their faith and will hold fast to it unfailingly throughout their lives.
Similarly, the oil of the sick is used in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to strengthen them against discouragement or despair in the face of illness and to seek divine healing of their infirmities of body, mind and soul.
The sacred chrism, which signifies a scented ointment, takes its name from the mixing of fragrant material with the oil. As the consecrated oil signifies the fullness of grace, so the perfumed balsam expresses freedom from corruption and the sweet scent of virtue. Anointing with the sacred chrism designates the person or object so anointed as being consecrated, that is, set apart for divine purposes. Thus, the surface of a new altar and the walls of a new church building are anointed by the bishop to show that they are to be used exclusively for divine worship. The bishop anoints the palms of the hands of a newly-ordained priest with the sacred chrism to show that he is consecrated to God to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, by which the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest to become the body and blood of Christ. The sacred chrism is poured on the head of a newly-ordained bishop to show the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in abundance, such that the bishop is called to share that Holy Spirit with the flock that he is called to tend. Those who are baptized and confirmed are anointed with the sacred chrism to symbolize their reception of the Holy Spirit, setting them apart as God’s adopted sons and daughters.
All of these anointings are pertinent to the themes of discipleship and stewardship that we will be discussing during our diocesan synod, as we will be praying for God to strengthen us with his Holy Spirit to become more dedicated disciples of our Risen Lord and more steadfast stewards of his creation.
May God give us this grace. Amen.