Monday, March 26, 2018

"Hail, holy chrism": on the Chrism Mass and the stuff that makes kings

Bishop Olmstead at the Diocese of Phoenix's Chrism Mass, 2015
"Therefore, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, do we beseech Thee through the same Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord, to be pleased by thy blessing to sanctify this substance, and to mingle thereto the power of the Holy Ghost with the co-operation of the presence of Thy Son, the Christ, from whose Holy Name it taketh its name of Chrism--a Chrism wherewith Thou hast anointed Priests, and Kings, Prophets and Martyrs..."
--from the traditional prayer by a bishop to consecrate holy chrism

It's hard for me to put it in any better terms than that prayer above: chrism is perhaps the holiest sacramental in the entire Catholic tradition. With it, the Church confirms new members of the faithful, anoints the hands of newly ordained priests, consecrates chalices for holding the Precious Blood of Christ, and makes kings worthy to wear a crown. It even gives the Christian faith its name, for Jesus is called the Christ: the Anointed One. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture is chock full of instances where holy oil was used to mark a person or thing apart, so it's no surprise that apostolic Christians continue to use oils for sacred purposes today. From its origins in the Biblical ages to now, the Church gradually came to bless three different types of oils:

  • The Oil of the Sick: pure olive oil used for the sacrament of Extreme Unction (or Anointing of the Sick). The act of having a priest anoint the sick was described in the Epistle of Saint James: "Is one of you sick? Let him send for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Lord’s name."
  • The Oil of the Catechumens: also pure olive oil, used to anoint those who are about to be received into the Church by baptism. Like an athlete of ancient Greece anointing himself with oil before competing, the Oil of the Catechumens prepares the recipient before undergoing the path to conversion. 
  • The Holy Chrism: olive oil mixed with balsam, this is the holiest of the three types. It's used in the rite of Baptism, and is the essential matter for the rite of Confirmation. A newly ordained priest is anointed on the palms of his hands with Chrism as well. So, too, was the oil held by the Ampoule (the vial used for the anointings of the kings of France) sacred Chrism. Pope Innocent III apparently tried to assert his authority over the kings of France by revoking the right to use Chrism in their coronations, but to no effect.  
The ampulla and spoon used for the anointing of the British monarch, first made for the coronation of Charles II in 1661. The older ampulla was destroyed by Parliamentarians following the English Civil War. The spoon, though, is medieval.
From the 5th century on, the Latin Church has reserved the consecration of chrism to the bishop alone--an ordinary priest could in theory, but he's forbidden from doing so by liturgical law. In a normal Catholic diocese, the bishop solemnly consecrates the chrism (and blesses the two other kinds) for the upcoming year at a special "Chrism Mass" together with all of his priests at his cathedral on the morning of Maundy Thursday, or some other day nearby. The priests then collect the oils and take them back to their parishes to replenish their stock for the year. In the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, though, our communities are spread across the US and Canada, so in order for all the priests to fly out to the Chrism Mass, collect the holy oils, and get back to their parishes to celebrate Holy Week, we normally have this liturgy on the first Thursday of Passiontide. On odd-numbered years, it takes place at the Ordinariate's cathedral in Houston (where I was instituted as an acolyte in 2016)--on even years, at some parish elsewhere to allow more members of the faithful in that region to attend. Last Thursday, I would've had the honor of assisting the 2018 Chrism Mass at our sister parish in Scranton, Pennsylvania as a second master of ceremonies... that is, if it hadn't been cancelled on account of yet another snowstorm! (It will now be held tomorrow at the cathedral in Houston, whether or not our priests can make it.)

Our cathedral doesn't need me to fly halfway across the country just to boss around some junior servers, so instead, I'll share with my dear readers a few things I learned about chrism and the history of the Chrism Mass in preparation for that day.

First, that before the Holy Week reforms of 1955 under Pius XII, there was no separate ritual Chrism Mass to speak of! Some of you liturgy enthusiasts out there already know that, in the rules of the Tridentine liturgy before 1955, all the Holy Week liturgies (and all other Masses through the year except for the midnight Mass of Christmas) were celebrated in the morning. The blessing of oils were performed by the bishop at the usual Mass of the Lord's Supper at the cathedral. Since parish priests would be celebrating the same Missa in Cena Domini at their parishes, there was no notion of gathering the whole presbytery together for one Mass, either.

This is not to say that the Chrism Mass was invented completely out of thin air--or even that, if it was, it's necessarily a bad idea. The liturgical movement had a solid notion to rediscover the liturgical importance of the holy chrism and bring more awareness of it to the faithful, the vast majority of whom had probably never seen the majestic rites of the blessing of oils in action. But in order to make all this happen, the architects of the 1955 Holy Week reforms had to reach back over a thousand years into the past.

The early medieval Missa Chrismalis in Rome

Frontispiece of MS Reginensis 316 (the Vatican's copy of the Gelasian Sacramentary)
The last time we had a separate ritual Mass for blessing the holy oils was around the 8th century. We can find concrete evidence for this in the Gelasian Sacramentary, the second-oldest surviving liturgical book for the Roman Rite. In book I, section 40, we find the Missa Chrismalis. This Mass was to be celebrated around 1pm on Maundy Thursday by the bishop--and since this book was made for the church in Rome, that means the Pope. There is no fore-Mass ("Liturgy of the Word"), but rather, begins at the offertory. The preface, interestingly, refers to the chrism but not the bread and wine on the altar, nor the Eucharist at all.

17th century chrismatory for holding the three different oils
The bishop interrupts the Canon towards the end, before "per quem haec omnia...", to bless the Oil of the Sick. It's a strange custom to us today, but for many centuries, the end of the Canon was a customary place to bless sacramentals. (My own Ordinariate parish, for instance, uses the end of the Canon to bless simnel cakes on Laetare Sunday--an English tradition for Mothering Sunday.)

The bishop then goes on through the Lord's Prayer to the fraction, then retreats back to the throne where a deacon presents him with the chrism to consecrate. The prayer is a long, consecretory formula with a preface and preface dialogue: Sursum corda, Habemus ad Dominum, etc., like the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil. The prayer gives thanks to God for His creation, including the olive trees which produce the chrism about to be consecrated. It then walks us through Biblical history, from the olive branch borne by the dove after the destruction of the earth by flood, to Moses anointing his brother Aaron as a priest with oil, to chrism used at the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. At last, it calls upon the Father to infuse the chrism with the Holy Ghost in the presence of the Son, the Christ: "from whose Holy Name it taketh its name of Chrism--a Chrism wherewith Thou hast anointed Priests, and Kings, Prophets and Martyrs". Yes, the same prayer quoted to begin this piece!

The bishop then says a prayer of exorcism over the oils and continues Mass with the Communion rite. The priests who have attended the Missa Chrismalis take the holy oils with them back their titular churches (the predecessor to "parishes") to celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper ad vesperam (in the evening).

The Tridentine "Chrism Mass"

An extremely rare instance of the pre-Vatican II rite being used. This was a Chrism Mass celebrated by Archbishop Haas of the Archdiocese of Vaduz (Liechtenstein) in 2014, according to the 1955 rite (more on that below).
The separate ritual Chrism Mass actually disappeared shortly after the time of the Gelasian Sacramentary. In the next century, the Sacramentary of Hadrian shows that the Pope simply blessed the oils at the Mass of the Lord's Supper. As well, now there is a complete fore-Mass. There aren't many changes for the blessing of oils from here up to the publication of the Pontificale Romanum following the Council of Trent. The rite for blessing the oils is substantially the same in the Tridentine Pontifical under Pope Clement VIII as it is in the Pontifical of 1485 under Pope Innocent VIII and his famous master of ceremonies, John Burchard... which, in turn, is substantially the same as the ceremony in book III of the Pontifical of William Durandus (late 13th century). This means that the blessing of the oils had not changed at all in the Roman Rite from the High Middle Ages up to the 20th century.

Having looked over these books above, plus the various ceremonial books such as the 1890 edition of the "Ceremonial for the Use of the Catholic Churches in the United States" and the 1914 "Manual of Episcopal Ceremonies" which lay out all the details, the rites for blessing the oils must have been utterly spectacular. In addition to all the usual ministers for a Pontifical Mass at the Throne, there are 12 priests in chasubles (for the Apostles, of course), 7 deacons in dalmatics (for the first deacons of the Church), and 7 subdeacons in tunics. This is the only instance in the pre-conciliar rite I can think of where a non-celebrating priest is wearing both the alb and chasuble (during the EF Corpus Christi procession, priests wear chasubles as a sign of their order, but not albs). This may have suggested to the Vatican II reformers that it was a relic of concelebration. More on this later.

The coped ministers are normal for a pontifical Mass at the Throne in the old rite, but note the 12 priests in chasubles along the sides, and the 7 deacons and 7 subdeacons.
The bishop vests during None (the ninth hour of the Divine Office), and Mass goes as usual for Maundy Thursday, though the subdeacon doesn't carry the paten with the humeral veil, but instead carries the thurible and incenses the Host and chalice at the elevations. The wooden clapper is used instead of Sanctus bells. As in the 8th century's Gelasian Sacramentary, the bishop stops toward the end of the Canon, before "Per aquem haec", to wash his fingers and go down the altar steps to a table readied in the middle of the sanctuary. The assistant priest (or "archdeacon") bids the Oil of the Sick to be brought forth by singing in the Prophecy tone, Olea infirmorum. One of the seven subdeacons, together with the MC and two acolytes, retreats to the sacristy and returns with the ampulla, labeled O.I. and veiled in violet. The subdeacon presents it to the archdeacon, saying Olea infirmorum, and the archdeacon does the same to the bishop. The bishop proceeds with an exorcism and then the blessing.

The bishop returns to the altar and Mass proceeds as usual until the Postcommunion. (The kiss of peace is omitted because Judas betrayed the Lord with a kiss on this day. The deacon saves one Host, which is to be used on Good Friday.) When the bishop returns to his seat, he blesses incense so the thurifer can lead the servers and all the extra vested ministers to the sacristy. The archdeacon bids them to to fetch the remaining two oils by singing Olea ad sanctum chrisma and Oleum catechumenorum. When they return, they form a procession back the "long way" (down the center aisle):
  • thurifer with burning incense,
  • subdeacon with the processional cross and two candlebearers,
  • the surpliced schola cantorum chanting the hymn O Redemptor,
  • six subdeacons,
  • five deacons,
  • the seventh subdeacon carrying the balsam (to be mixed by the bishop into the chrism),
  • the sixth and seventh deacons with white humeral veils--one with the Oil of the Catechumens veiled in green, the other with the Sacred Chrism veiled in white,
  • and then the twelve priests.
The bishop says two prayers, then mixes the balsam into a small portion of the chrism on a paten. He then sits and, like God breathing life into Adam, breathes over the chrism three times in the form of a cross. Then the twelve priests, almost as though it were like an act of concelebration, go up to the oils one at a time to do the same. The bishop then rises, prays an exorcism, and then sings the preface dialogue and formula for consecrating the chrism. This prayer is almost word-for-word the very same one used in the Gelasian Sacramentary (and quoted, in part, at the top of this piece), so this formula has been in use for well over a thousand years!

Now the bishop mixes the balsam into the rest of the chrism in the ampulla. Here follows the part of the rite that struck me the most, and which gives the title for this entry. The bishop bows toward the newly consecrated chrism and sings Ave, sanctum chrisma three times, each time at a higher voice than before (like the ecce lignum of Good Friday and the Alleluia of the Easter Vigil). After the third intonation, he kisses the ampulla and takes a seat. The twelve priests now perform a most intricate series of steps, almost like a dance:
  • first genuflecting to the altar;
  • then bowing to the bishop;
  • then kneeling on both knees at a distance from the chrism, singing Ave, sanctum chrisma;
  • rising, approaching closer, kneeling again and singing Ave, sanctum chrisma in a higher tone;
  • then rising again and kneeling immediately before the chrism to sing Ave, sanctum chrisma in a yet higher tone;
  • and at last, rising, kissing the ampulla, and then returning to their places.
The priests individually reverencing the ampulla with the Chrism
At last, the bishop moves to bless the Oil of the Catechumens. The deacon assigned to fetch the OC has been holding it this entire time, and now finally gets to hand it off to the archdeacon. The bishop and then the twelve priests breathe over this oil three times in the form of a cross, like before. And, like before, after the exorcism and blessing, the bishop thrice sings Ave, sanctum oleum and kisses the ampulla. The twelve priests do the same, kneeling at the three intervals like before.

At last, with the blessing of the oils complete, the bishop recharges the thurible, and the "ministers of the oils" retrieve the ampullae and form a recession back to the sacristy to deposit them, while the schola resumes singing the hymn O Redemptor. Since this is still the Mass of the Lord's Supper, though, there's still a lot left to do. The schola must now sing the Communion antiphon and the bishop must process to the altar of repose. Thankfully for anyone in the congregation getting restless, the mandatum (foot-washing) isn't done in the middle of Mass in this rite. It's performed in a ceremony outside of Mass and not even necessarily in the cathedral (the place could be, for instance, the chapter room).

The 1955 Holy Week reforms

From the Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus, 1955
Much has already been said about the massive reforms made for Holy Week in 1955, here on this blog and elsewhere. For this piece, I'll only mention what's relevant to the blessing of the oils. The Mass of the Lord's Supper, which had gradually come to be anticipated into the morning hours, was now decreed to be celebrated in the evening, as in the vesperal Mass of the Gelasian Sacramentary. Now, the morning of Maundy Thursday was free to propose a restoration of the old Missa Chrismalis. The Holy Week reform now created a Mass for the morning of Maundy Thursday, after Terce: the first "Chrism Mass" of modern times. A few new creations had to be made--the old Chrism Mass in the Gelasian Sacramentary began at the Offertory, so new Scripture lessons had to be chosen, and a new Introit chant, Facies unctionis, was composed.

Other items for this new ritual Chrism Mass were lifted directly from the Gelasian Sacramentary's texts, such as the collect (adapted from an opening prayer) and the Preface. The rites for blessing the oils remained the same as they were before 1955. The rubrics have the bishop still consult the old Pontifical for those prayers and ceremonies, so everything about the blessing of oils I described in the section above still applies here, between the years 1956 to 1965 at least.

Vatican II and the 1965 "interim" liturgy

From "The Roman Missal in Latin and English for Holy Week and Easter Week", 1965
The Chrism Mass drew the special attention of the Vatican II fathers for one major reason: concelebration--that is, two or more priests celebrating the same Mass together. The Council's 1963 constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, introduced the modern practice of concelebration, and named the Chrism Mass as the very first instance where it might be done:
 57. 1. Concelebration, whereby the unity of the priesthood is appropriately manifested, has remained in use to this day in the Church both in the east and in the west. For this reason it has seemed good to the Council to extend permission for concelebration to the following cases:

1.a) on the Thursday of the Lord's Supper, not only at the Mass of the Chrism, but also at the evening Mass.
As I wrote before, the old rite of the blessing of oils was the only instance in the Latin Church where multiple priests would be fully vested in alb and chasuble, except at their own priestly ordinations. Since the twelve fully vested priests "co-consecrated" the chrism by blowing over it with the bishop, and since the separate Chrism Mass was upheld as a successful example of reaching back into antiquity, the reformers likely saw the Chrism Mass as ground zero for rolling out concelebration on a wider scale.

The 1965 Missal directs the bishop to still use the ceremony for blessing the oils as given in the Tridentine Pontificale, but with the following changes:

1.) The rubrics assume that there are concelebrating priests present (who effectively take the place of the 12 vested priests from before). There isn't yet the assumption that every priest in the diocese is present, but the suggestion instead that among the concelebrants, "there should be the archpriests or deans of the regions of the diocese or at least some priests from the various regions of the diocese".

2.) The Epistle is changed. The old one (James 5:13-16) was felt to refer only to the least important of the oils, that of the Sick. The new reading, from Isaiah 61, was more relevant to the use of Chrism in anointing priests. The Gospel is also revised; the old one (Mark 6:7-13) likewise had the problem of referring only to the Oil of the Sick, while the new (Luke 4:16-22) directly refers back to Isaiah.

3.) The procession with the holy oils is simplified. It now happens after the (also-new) prayer of the faithful instead of after Communion, and all 3 oils are brought at once. The procession also includes the bread and wine. The Offertory antiphon is abolished, and the singing now begins with the hymn O Redemptor.

4.) The oils are presented to the bishop in "reverse order" of importance: Chrism, Oil of the Catechumens, and Oil of the Sick. The archdeacon now no longer calls for them to be fetched, but instead the deacon or subdeacon presenting them merely says what they are. No musical notation or suggestion of singing these words. These are all to be placed on a table in the sanctuary that can be easily viewed by the people. (It suggests that the 7 deacons and 7 subdeacons no longer stand between the oils and the congregation, obscuring the ceremonies from view.)

5.) The prayers for blessing the Oil of the Sick remain at the end of the Canon, and are the same text, but now may be done in the vernacular. All the other blessing prayers are given in the vernacular as well.

6.) For the Chrism, the bishop only breathes over it in the form of the cross once. The concelebrating priests do the same, but while remaining in their places.

7.) The rite for saluting the Chrism with Ave, sanctum chrisma is vastly simplified. The bishop bows and says "hail, holy Chrism" once. The concelebrating priests do the same afterward, remaining in their place. Then everyone else (presumably the whole congregation) does it, again remaining in their places. The practice of slowly approaching the Chrism, kneeling at 3 intervals, singing the salutation each time higher than the last, is all gone.

7.) The Oil of the Catechumens is blessed, but the rite for saluting it with Ave, sanctum oleum is totally omitted.

(There are a few other changes here and there, like a new Prayer over the Gifts and a different Communion antiphon.)

From an altar missal during the transitional Mass period

1970: The Ordinary Form

Ordinary Form Chrism Mass from the Diocese of Birmingham, 2014

The Chrism Mass as it appears in the books of 1970 is how it's currently celebrated in just about every cathedral in the Latin Rite today. The following changes should be familiar to anyone who's attended a Chrism Mass since 1970:

1.) First, that the Chrism Mass need not necessarily take place on the morning of Maundy Thursday anymore. If it's more convenient for the faithful, it can take place on another day, such as a weekday evening earlier in Holy Week.

2.) As part of the overall structural changes of the new rite, a second reading before the Gospel is added (from Revelation). The new Introit draws from this second reading, and is focused more on priesthood than oils.

3.) With the assumption now that all the priests of the diocese are present, a whole new aspect has been added: after the homily, all the priests make a "Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service". I suspect this addition followed in the spirit of the Renewal of Baptismal Promises that was added to the Easter Vigil back in 1955.

4.) The procession of oils is further simplified--or, perhaps, it might be better said that it's not described in as much detail as before. The 7 deacons and 7 subdeacons are no longer mentioned.

5.) The mixing of the balsam into the Chrism is now optional. The alternative is for the Chrism to already be mixed before Mass.

6.) The traditional placement of the blessings (Oil of the Sick at the end of the Canon, the other two after Communion) is now optional. The alternative is to bless them all together after the homily, like most everything else. I don't have data, but I would guess most dioceses do this now because it "seems" more logical.

7.) The Preface is newly composed, and focuses entirely on priesthood without reference to the oils whatsoever.

8.) All the prayers of exorcism are gone.

9.) The order of the latter two oils are flipped so that the Chrism comes last. The prayer for the Oil of the Catechumens is new.

10.) The breathing over the Chrism is optional.

11.) There are now two options for the consecratory prayer of the Chrism. Option A is mostly the same as the traditional prayer (and still uses the portion I've quoted at the top of the piece), though no longer with its own preface dialogue.

Bishop Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln. The pre-conciliar colored veils are still in use here.


The Chrism Mass has probably exploded in popularity well beyond what any of the architects of Vatican II ever imagined. It's now a highly publicized event, more usually scheduled on an evening earlier in Holy Week to allow for a fully packed congregation. However, the original intention to restore a separate Chrism Mass back in 1955 was to bring a greater focus to the faithful on just how special the holy oils are. There has been a lot of criticism since then--with merit, in my opinion--on how the focus of the Chrism Mass was co-opted in 1970 to something else entirely. And, oddly, it's one of very few things that liturgical traditionalists and liberals can agree on. Those who carefully read my description of the most recent changes probably know what I'm about to say.

The focus of the Chrism Mass after 1970 is now not so much about the Chrism, but about priests. Yes, there was always a latent connection since Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper. But the shift to making the Chrism Mass centered on the priesthood is deliberate, and likely goes back to Pope Paul VI himself. One priestly blogger comments approvingly in his account of the Chrism Mass as "a surprisingly successful innovation":
"What changed everything was Pope Paul VI's decision to turn the Chrism Mass into something completely new - a celebration of the priesthood. Of course, the oils are still blessed (although no longer at their traditional times during the Mass or with the full centuries-old ceremonies), but the focus of the occasion is evidently elsewhere."
"As Archbishop of Milan in the 1950s, the future Pope Paul VI had especially stressed the priestly aspect of Holy Thursday with his Ambrosian Rite clergy." 

Not everyone is so sold, though. I've heard it remarked that only Paul VI could have been so clericalist as to transform the Chrism Mass into a celebration of priestly unity. Some feel that the Chrism Mass now, as with other massive concelebrations with walls of priests huddled around the altar, actually end up doing more to segregate the priesthood from the laity as a class, than the old system with a single celebrant being marked apart only by virtue of exercising his ministry in the moment.

While it's hard to argue against the idea of all the priests getting together for one Mass during Holy Week, or renewing their promises, it's impossible to deny that the addition of these promises, the simplification of the procession with oils, the total abolition of the kneeling and saluting the Chrism, and the entirely new Preface on the priesthood which replaced the Preface of the oils from the Gelasian Sacramentary, all served to minimize the original purpose of this Mass in favor of the new one.

But whatever my reservations, the Chrism Mass as we know it remains quite popular and won't be going anywhere anytime soon. Should any diocesan liturgists out there be reading this piece, I can at least heartily recommend following the practices chosen by the Ordinariate for the Chrism Mass as we would have had it last week: retaining the act of the bishop mixing the balsam in view of the faithful, keeping the blessings at their traditional places in the liturgy rather than just after the homily, and above all, making sure to use the traditional form for consecrating the Chrism. To add to that, I see no reason why we couldn't restore some of the grandeur of the old procession, with 7 deacons and subdeacons (or "tunicled acolytes"), with the ampullae in veils brought forth by deacons in humeral veils. There's a simple video here of the Ordinariate's Chrism Mass from 2017.

At last, I do believe there was a solid impulse behind the desire to get more of the faithful to witness the blessing of the oils. So, of course, I encourage those of you who can to attend these rites, wherever they're offered!

A final aside: for those who have Netflix, I highly recommend watching the series The Crown, especially the dramatization of Queen Elizabeth II being anointed at Westminster Abbey. This was the only part of the coronation ceremony that was deemed too holy to broadcast on television in 1953. Once the Knights of the Garter brought the canopy up to conceal the Queen from view, the cameras cut off.

The final act of anointing goes, "Be thy Head anointed with holy Oil: as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed:  And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."


  1. "making sure to use the traditional form for consecrating the Chrism"

    Does the Ordinariate's chrism Mass have the exorcisms?

    1. No, since they aren't present in the OF Pontifical. Alas.