Who makes and divides up the holy oils that the bishop blesses during Holy Week each year?
-Rosanne Wiatrolik, Springfield
Rosanne, you have asked the right person! The past few years, I have had the happy work of setting up everything for the chrism Mass, which takes place during Holy Week, including preparing for the bishop to bless the holy oils. It is a fairly ordinary process!
The holy oils that the Church uses in the sacraments are all composed of olive oil. So, we start with several dozen gallons of pure olive oil, and through a process perfected over many years, through the generous efforts of everyone willing to help (in recent years, our Knights of Columbus Council at Cathedral in Springfield has led the charge), we go about carefully filling more than 300 individual bottles using a conglomeration of funnels and old coffee urns, labeling them as “oil of catechumens,” “oil of the sick,” and “sacred chrism” as we go, and placing one such bottle in each box, which is labeled with the parish or institution to which it is destined to go. Before filling the bottles that will become sacred chrism, we mix in the balsam extract to the point where the scent is obvious, but not overpowering (and we don’t run out of balsam before filling all the bottles).
Of course, we also fill the larger glass jugs that are used during the chrism Mass with oil as well and it is these that will be carried in procession up to the bishop for him to bless (oil of catechumens and oil of the sick) and consecrate (sacred chrism) at the proper points in the Mass. The boxes with their bottles are placed in front of bishop before the Mass begins.
After the Mass, the larger glass bottles are kept in the ambry at Cathedral, which is the place, often looking much like a tabernacle, that houses each of the oils in every parish, and all the pre-boxed sets of bottles are distributed to their various destinations. Most years, they are collected by the pastor or a delegated member from that parish, though during 2020, they were carried to each deanery by a few of the priests in Springfield because the lockdown didn’t allow for representatives from each parish to be at the chrism Mass.
One interesting sacramental twist to the story: The rite of the Church seems to prefer that the bishop himself mix the balsam into the oil before consecrating the chrism, and thus that the oils only be distributed into smaller bottles after the chrism Mass. Thankfully, the Vatican has clarified that it is valid to mix and bottle everything ahead of time, and this is how we have done it here in our diocese in order to expedite the process of distributing them out to their various destinations after the Mass.
Father Dominic Rankin is Master of Ceremonies and priest secretary for Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, is an associate vocations director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.