The Chrism Mass

Educating about the Chrism Mass is a mainstay of the courses I teach in ecclesiology and sacramental theology. Here is the seventeen-page handout I give to my students, so you can track the following observations. This handout ends in a meditation on the chrism mass that contains the theology that follows.

The way the Chrism Mass is celebrated in some dioceses distorts its ecclesiology. Even though the entrance antiphon refers to all of the baptized as priests (“Jesus Christ has made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father: glory and kingship be his for ever and ever. Amen.” [Rev. 1:6]—also the second reading of the Mass), the procession is often made up of clergy only. ALL of us are this kingdom of priests and all of us should be in this procession.

(By the way, the Psallite collection has a glorious setting of this antiphon at A-124.)

A processional emphasis on the clergy can distort the meaning of the collect as well: the “us” in “you have given us a share in his consecration to priestly service in your Church” is ALL of us, and not just the ordained. (The old collect was : “Lord God, to regenerate Your people You make use of the ministry of priests; grant us faithfully to observe Your plan of salvation so that by the gift of Your grace the people dedicated to You may in our time increase both in merit and number.”)

The nuptial imagery in the first reading (diadem, oil of gladness, glorious mantle), the gospel, and the communion psalm is often ignored. Jesus recites the Canticle of Isaiah, the nuptial hymn that begins with Isaiah 61:1 and ends at Isaiah 62:5 (“as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you”). The communion psalm sings the bridegroom portion of the wedding psalm.

The new rubric (“8. After the reading of the Gospel, the Bishop preaches the Homily in which, taking his starting point from the text of the readings proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word, he speaks to the people and to his Priests about priestly anointing, urging the Priests to be faithful in their office and calling on them to renew publicly their priestly promises.”) is much better than the old (“In his homily the bishop should urge the priests to be faithful in fulfilling their office in the Church and should invite them to renew publicly their priestly promises.”)—but will bishops even notice?

The insertion by Pope Paul VI of the Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service skews the liturgy in the direction of the ordained. Some dioceses still insert renewals of commitment to diaconal service, religious service, seminarian commitment, lay leadership, and the like. The loss of the universal prayer is a further deterioration in the role of the lay faithful at the Chrism Mass.

The current translation of the hymn for the procession of the oils hides the inclusive nature of the Latin text. [Has anyone access to the new translation? I can’t find it.]

The preface of “the priesthood of Christ and the ministry of priests” does mention the royal priesthood but then emphasizes the ministerial priesthood. The ancient preface was much more inclusive:

It is truly fitting and proper, right and profitable to salvation to call upon Your goodness with suppliant prayers so that You may make of this Chrism, Your creature, an effective sign of life and salvation for those who are to become new creatures in the sacred font of baptism. So that the corruption belonging to original birth being destroyed, each of them, sanctified by this anointing, may give forth, as from a living temple, the pure odor of a life pleasing to You. Invested with the dignity of king, priest and prophet, by the sacred rite which You have instituted, by Your gift, may they be clothed with the garment of immortality; through Christ our Lord. Through whom the Angels praise Your majesty, the Dominions worship You, the Powers are in awe before You. The Heavens and the heavenly Hosts and the blessed Seraphim join together in a hymn of praise. We pray You that our voices, too, may be joined with theirs as we sing with humble praise:


  1. Thanks, Paul…..and enjoyed the handouts. Your students are lucky to have you. These overly dramatic commitment services as the Triduum began esp. if too focused on clerics, both embarrassed and disturbed me for the significant liturgical/scriptural roots that you have elucidated.

    As you say, but will most bishops/priests or even people notice. Agree strongly that Paul VI did a disservice with his insertions. It is always interesting when popes choose to do their own thing and make insertions into the church’s liturgy based on their own personal whims, notions, and who knows what.

  2. The draft text of the Order of the Blessing the Oils does not contain a translation of the hymn, that part is blank.

    On a different note, I find it interesting how the 1998 Sacramentary attempted to remedy the problem by provided a second option for the priestly commitment which included intercessions. There was the beautiful alternative Preface that was proposed as well.

  3. Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service at Mass of the Lord’s Supper

    (Each question may be put by a different member of the parish)
    Parishioner: (Addressing the people)
    Sisters and brothers:
    today we celebrate the memory of the first eucharist.
    Through his cross and resurrection,
    our Lord, Jesus Christ, calls his people to the dignity of a royal priesthood.
    In our Baptism, we all are anointed
    to take part in the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ to the world.
    We invite Fr N and Fr N,
    who are called to serve that mission among us in the ordained ministry
    to renew this commitment today.
    We will then invite all here
    to renew your own Baptismal commitment today
    to serve in this one priesthood of Jesus Christ.

    (Addressing the priests)
    At your ordination, out of love for Jesus Christ and his church,
    you accepted this special responsibility of serving God’s people
    in living the priesthood of Jesus Christ in our world today.
    Are you resolved now to renew your dedication to this calling?
    Priests: I am resolved.
    Parishioner: Are you resolved to imitate Jesus Christ
    and to unite yourselves more and more closely with him,
    to bring his peace and love to all your sisters and brothers?
    Priests: I am resolved.
    Parishioner: Are you resolved to be faithful ministers of Word and Sacrament,
    and of all our Christian faith, with sincere devotion
    for the well-being of those you are sent to serve?
    Priests: I am resolved.
    Parishioner: (Addressing the people)
    We are members of the one body of Christ.
    We remember that each and every one of us is important in this work,
    and that we rely on one another for support.
    Are you resolved to pray for those who are ordained to serve you,
    and to encourage them to be faithful ministers of Jesus Christ?
    All: We are resolved.
    Parishioner: Are you resolved to work with one another, each in your own way,
    serving the priestly Mission to which Jesus Christ calls you?
    All: We are resolved.

    1. Those aren’t approved texts Pádraig. An approved text would not have ‘sisters and brothers’. It’s always ‘brethren’ or ‘Brothers and sisters’.

    2. This is a lovely idea, Pádraig; but in my opinion it “hijacks” the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, already groaning with a superabundance of meaning, along the lines of the “hijacking” of the Chrism Mass. And the elision of baptism with holy orders leaves out the should-be-lavish use of chrism in confirmation.

      1. I have felt the same way about the presentation of the Oils at the Holy Thursday Evening Eucharist. There us already so much symbolism and commemoration taking place, it just overburdens the celebration.

  4. the procession is often made up of clergy only. ALL of us are this kingdom of priests and all of us should be in this procession.

    This is unclear to me. I don’t have my copy of the C.E. handy, but it seems that the people who should be in the procession are the same people who should always be in the entrance procession, the clergy and the ministers.

    1. There are processions and then there are PROCESSIONS. The Chrism Mass is an occasion for the latter.

      My comment is based on my experience of seeing not only all the priests of a diocese in the procession but also all the deacons and their wives. Such a practice belies the intent of the entrance antiphon. We should do what we are saying/singing.

  5. Another problematic element introduced into the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in my opinion, at least in the ceremonial prescribed (or maybe it’s just “suggested”) in the United States (cf The Sacramentary Supplement), is that the holy oils are to be carried up in the preparation rite as gifts before the bread and wine.

    How inappropriate is this, on the one night that the Sacramentary actually SPECIFIES that “bread and wine and gifts for the poor” are to be carried in that procession. The Sacramentary even prescribes the hymn to be sung: Ubi caritas – which has nothing to do with the oils. Then there are more words, as each of the oils is presented and the people respond.

    The Italian Missal, by contrast, has the reception of oils by the local community take place right at the beginning of the liturgy, the oils are placed on the altar (appropriately, as these have been blessed and consecrated) so that the celebrant may incense them as he incenses the altar during these opening rites. After the greeting, he says (these or similar words) [which translation was published by LTP years ago in Sourcebook for Sundays and Seasons]:

    From Jesus, our Teacher and Lord,
    who made himself Servant of all
    and who gave his life as a ransom for the many:
    grace, mercy and peace be with you all. R. And also with you.

    On this holy night, we enter into the Three Days of the Lord’s Pasch,
    the Sacred Triduum, the paschal mystery
    of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection,
    into which the elect of our community (or: of the Church) will be initiated.
    As we begin, therefore, we receive from our Bishop N. of the Church of N.
    the holy oils blessed and consecrated
    for the sacramental life of our parish community.

    1. Presenter: The Oil of the Sick
      Presider: By the laying on of hands and anointing with this oil, and with the prayerful support of this community, may those who are sick experience the healing presence of Christ.

      Presenter: The Oil of Catechumens
      Presider: Anointed with this oil and assisted by this community’s example, may our catechumens persevere in their journey to the saving waters of baptism and share in Christ’s victory over sin and the power of evil.

      Presenter: The Holy Chrism
      Presider: Through anointing with this fragrant oil, may all who are baptized and confirmed, all who are ordained to the service of God’s people, and this assembly whose altar and church are dedicated to God’s glory, fill the world with the sweet fragrance of Christ’s gospel and be built up as living stones into a temple filled with the Holy Spirit.

      The oils are then taken to the place where they are usually kept.

      Mass continues with the Gloria.

      The insertion of the reception of the oils into the presentation and preparation of the gifts, like the blessing and lighting of the Advent wreath after the homily and not as a Lucernarium at the entrance rites where it properly belongs are USA creations – and guess who was in charge at the time they came into being? (Hint: think Vox Clara and thousands of English scholars preparing to constrain us mercifully).

      1. What WAS the case, Sam, and what the hint was supposed to lead you to, was the IDENTITY of the PERSON running the BCL back then and putting these rites together for the USA.

        So here’s your Hint #2: SAME PERSON WHO PUT VOX CLARA’S 10,000 “IMPROVEMENTS” TOGETHER.

        Get it?

      2. Sam, I could give you dates and times – and sometimes places (and ask you to check the table of contents of the various editions; and compare with the Lectionary for Mass of the same era: O Immortal Light DIVINE / Shine within these hearts of YOURS. Another Moroney-ism).

        But you know what?

        You’d have to put down the pom-poms and pour the Kool Aid down the sink.

        And that’s never going to happen.

        So I’m going to leave you to your cheerleading.

        And I’ll get back to Holy Week.

        Happy Easter!

    2. The new Roman Missal changes the time of reception to before the Mass, not before the Gloria:

      15. Receptio sacrorum oleorum fieri potest in singulis paroeciis vel ante celebrationem Missæ vespertinæ in Cena Domini, vel alio tempore, quod opportunius videbitur.

      15. The reception of the Holy Oils may take place in individual parishes either before the celebration of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper or at another time that seems more appropriate.

      Then, all stand to sing the one entrance song of the Triduum:

      Nos autem gloriári opórtet
      in cruce Dómini nostri Iesu Christi,
      in quo est salus, vita et resurréctio nostra,
      per quem salváti et liberáti sumus.

      Mistakenly identified in the missal as “Cf. Galatians 5:14” and unmemorably translated in the new missal as:

      We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
      in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
      through whom we are saved and delivered.

      How much better in the currect sacramentary:

      We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
      for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection;
      through him we are saved and made free.

      1. Wonderful! Whenever . . . just NOT at the presentation of the gifts, where the person running the BCL back then put it in Sacramentary Supplement, i.e., at the presentation of the gifts.

        I don’t want to give the name of the person and take away Samuel J. Howard’s fun . . . he’s in the process of following the clues to his hero on the Vox Clara team.

  6. It is disturbing that the Gospel of the Chrism Mass is not the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman (Mar 14:3-13) (Matt 26: 6-13) (John 12: 1-8).

    Jesus said: “ Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.”

    This is a key Gospel. Both Mark and John have almost the identical words; it must have been prominent in the early oral tradition.

    This gospel gives us deep insight into Jesus; even the disciples did not understand Jesus well. Luke completely relocated and redid the story (Luke 7: 36-50) to solve its disturbing qualities.

    Finally it seems to have been the tipping point for the betrayal by Judas. A very disturbing gospel indeed!

    How beautiful that Jesus was anointed by a woman who not only deeply loved him but had a love very much like that of Jesus. She was willing to risk the role of servant, being misunderstood and reviled, and abasement in the eyes of everyone. How deeply he must have felt that she identified with him. How appropriate that she should anoint him as he approached his passion and death!

    Judas and the disciples did not understand this. They were in denial of the coming passion and death; they failed to understand the servant love of Jesus. Peter was willing to take up the sword but was shocked when Jesus washed his feet. Peter recovered; Judas would have none of it. Money and status were what he understood.

    Is the Gospel being preached well to the whole world when we fail to proclaim this story, especially during Holy Week?

    Holy oils like money can become symbols of wealth and status, even justified as being spiritual. What better way to approach a deeper understanding both of anointing (Ps. 133 “How good it is, how pleasant, where the people dwell as one! Like precious ointment on the head ” which supports Paul’s meditation), servant love, and the Passion than this gospel!

    1. Forgive me making a small correction, but it is Matthew and Mark who have Jesus say that what the woman did will be told in memory of her. John instead uses the image ” the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” This is a reference to 2 Chr 5:18 “The priests could not continue to minister because of the cloud, since the LORD’S glory filled the house of God.” (Luke uses the same image when the great wind fills the house on Pentecost.) Gregory of Nyssa says the anointing at Bethany has become of the anointing of the whole Church in the whole cosmos.

      What is even more dreadful than leaving the story out of the Chrism Mass is how it has been left out throughout Holy Week. A century ago it was read:
      1. on the Friday before Holy Week had St Luke’s version
      2. on Sunday at the beginning of the Passion according to St Matthew
      3. on Monday by itself from St John because “Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany…”
      4. on Tuesday at the beginning of St Mark’s Passion
      5. on Thursday allusions to the anointing of the feet in Luke and John were part of the antiphons during the washing of the feet.

      We still have the Monday reading, but the other four have all disappeared, so that the declaration about “wherever in all the world the gospel is proclaimed…” is only heard every three years when we read St Mark’s Passion. It would be nice if it were repeated on Holy Thursday when “The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were to take place in two days’ time,” as St Mark has it.

      1. Well-observed, Jim—thank you. Correction to your list: No. 1. should be Thursday in Passion Week, yes? And the rest of your list was trimmed to just 1 and 2 in the 1962 missal. “Dreadful?” I think not.

      2. Absolutely right, it was Thursday and not Friday of Passion week. Thank you.

        And my apologies if the “more dreadful” offended you. I think this story is very important, and do not like that it has been so removed from the liturgy. What this woman did needs to be remembered, and needs to be remembered in the context of the Paschal Mystery. That is how the Evangelists present the story, except for St Luke. I have some ideas on WHY it should be remembered, but those are less important than the remembering itself. That is why I jumped at the suggestion that it be used two days before Easter, akin to St Mark’s two days before the Passover.

      3. Jim: No apologies necessary because no offense taken. “Dreadful” is one of my favorite terms of disapproval. I was trying to sat that it didn’t apply to the matter you brought to our attention.

    2. “Disturbing”? I don’t think so. The anointing of Jesus by the woman is in view of his coming burial, a use of oil not part of our sacramental system. The Chrism Mass is a nearly transtemporal event, outside the liturgical year; but necessary in view of the need to renew the supply of the oils just when fresh oils would be needed the most: for baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations to the priesthood and the episcopate. Hence the location of the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday or at least near Holy Week.

      The readings of the Chrism Mass underscore its transtemporality: The royal, priestly bridegroom, shining and fragrant with oil, presents himself to his bride holding the full gift of the Holy Spirit whom he would pour out over her to get her ready for their wedding.

      1. The burial of Jesus is “not part of our sacramental system”?

        Your burial or mine may not use oil from our sacramental system, but the burial of Jesus is part of Baptism where sacramental oil is used. Perhaps that connection needs to be explored?

  7. “he speaks to the people and to his Priests about priestly anointing, urging the Priests to be faithful in their office and calling on them to renew publicly their priestly promises.”

    I hope I am not being too disagreeable this morning, but this is a perfectly reasonable rubric for the Chrism Mass, as long as we remember that a priest’s office is to enable the whole Church to exercise the offices of Prophet Priest and King. I suppose that also means remembering that the “priestly anointing” is given at Baptism, which is not the way most interpret its use here.

    1. “which is not the way most interpret its use here”—but that’s the problem, Jim: Priestly anointing happens at baptism and confirmation, not just at the ordination of priests and bishops.

  8. And a question that has been bothering me for some years. The prayer of consecration for the chrism declares “It is from [Christ] that chrism takes its name.” Ancient sources say, correctly I think, that Christ takes His name from chrism. St Isidore says this, and Alcuin follows him. The Gospel of Phillip has it. I remember a source saying the Sarum rite for the Chrism saying Christ takes its name from it, though I have not tracked that down yet.

    Is there any significance to the difference?

    1. Saying that “chrism” takes its name from Jesus the Christ sounds nice and pious, but isn’t really so. The entry from the (old) Catholic Encyclopedia points out that “chrisma” is just an old Greek word referring to the stuff that was used to smear/annoint things/people and only gradually came to acquire this restricted meaning in Christian discourse.

      On a related note, the words “christ” and “messiah” just mean “the annointed one.” Would we have a different view of the New Testament (and the bible generally) if we translated terms instead of leaving them in these transliterated forms? We’re certainly expecting this in a liturgical context with the change from “one in being” to “consubstantial.”

      The example that comes to mind is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. When the Douay-Rheims bible was in use, this was known as the parable of Dives and Lazarus, “dives” being Latin for rich man, but here the Latin word was used as a proper name. Now we translate “rich man” but not “Lazarus.” What if this were known as the parable of the rich man and the man helped by God? Would it have a more social justice/liberation theology feel to it, i.e. God doesn’t help the rich man?

      I don’t have it at hand, but Andy Gaus’ “Unvarnished New Testament” might be along these lines. I know that he translates “pneuma” as “breath” so you don’t get references to God’s spirit but Gods’ breath.

  9. Providence, Monday Night, followed by a very select clergy dinner at the Cathedral Rectory. Why on Monday night of Holy Week in a Diocese/State where no parish is more than 45 minutes away from the Cathedral? Take it from Janet:
    because the priests are going to be working 24/7 from now till Thursday evening to make the Triduum extra super duper special…..or maybe no one cares? I’ll tell you this, since this is school vacation week and they could not bus in the usual 900 kids: the Cathedral was a GHOST TOWN. Had to walk 14 pews just to exchange the sign of peace!

  10. Paul – appears that you need to re-educate your current leader – from Monday nite at LA archdiocese:

    “Pope John Paul II used to call this yearly celebration of the Chrism Mass, “the feast of priests.” That is a beautiful way to think about this celebration.

    Pope John Paul II had a big influence on my own priesthood. I am overjoyed, and I am sure that you are too, that he is going to be beatified soon, on May 1.

    Tonight, in this “feast of priests” we have a wonderful opportunity for the renewal of our priesthood.

    That is why I want to say some personal words to my brother priests about the beauty and the duty of their calling.”

    Another liturgical imposition from that deep liturgical expert, JPII.

    Another tidbit or should we say – “advertisement”:

    “In these coming months we have a wonderful opportunity, all of us, as we prepare to use new translations of the prayers we say in Mass this coming Advent. This is a wonderful moment of grace for our Archdiocese and for the whole Church in the United States to renew our love for Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.”

  11. On the day of the Lord’s Supper holy chrism is also made, because two days before the Passover, Mary is said to have anointed the head and feet of the Lord with oil. Rabanus Maurus, On the Institution of Clerics.

    I accidentally clicked on the Chrism Mass subject heading, and discovered that last year I had posted source quotes for two understandings of the Chrism Mass. I like the restatement of Aquinas’ position as “transtemporal,” but I think that leaves us with many problems and the question of why do it Holy Thursday. It may be more convenient than at the Easter Vigil, but not much.

    Rabanus Maurus is the older source, and offers a rationale that ties it the Chrism Mass closely to the Holy Thursday tradition. This ties in with the way the gospels present the story immediately before the Last Supper. (John has the entry into Jerusalem following, and then the Last Supper; while Luke does not follow the tradition of tying this to the Passion.)

    What the woman did is important to me personally, but I am limiting myself to just observing the facts. They may not fit together to support Jack’s proposal to use the anointing as the Chrism Mass gospel, but I think there is enough there to suggest considering it more carefully.

    1. Jim,

      FWIW, my proposal derives from studying the Gospel of Mark.

      Many scholars have noted Mark’s very negative view of the disciples. In Greek, disciple has two meanings. In Acts it means a believer (adherent), e.g. a disciple of Moses. In the Synoptic Gospels, however it usually means a person apprenticed to a teacher. Replace “disciples” in Mark by “aides” or “assistants”; a matter of fact description of a social relationship results without the glow we associate with believing.

      For Mark, Jesus, the servant of all, is the model to be imitated; disciples as apprentices are often examples of what not to do.

      For Mark, children are positive models to be imitated, upon whom God’s favor rests.

      For Mark, women are positive models. At the beginning of the public ministry (Mark 1:31), Jesus cures Peter’s mother-in-law and she begins to “serve.” At the death of Jesus (Mark 15:41), “These women had followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him.” These are the only persons other than Jesus and the angels to whom Mark applies the word from which we get deacon.

      Mark loves brackets: The transfiguration at the center is bracketed by the baptism and the death at the ends. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:145),” again a key to the identity of Jesus at the center, is bracketed by the women’s service at the ends.

      Anointing (by a woman, and by the women) brackets the passion narrative, signs the passion is about Jesus, anointed as king, priest and prophet. But all the ironic references within the text to these roles tell us Jesus, the servant, lived these in a manner unlike what anyone expected.

      Invoking his death to justify the anointing was part of Jesus “catechesis” to very resistant disciples. I doubt the woman initiated the anointing in anticipation of his burial, or that any Gospel writer thought this was merely a Jewish rite.

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