Every year before Easter, at cathedrals around the world, the people of God celebrate the Chrism Mass.

Ancient and symbolically rich, it is one of the most significant liturgical events in the Church outside of Christmas and Easter. Although it might not feature strongly in many people’s minds, participating in the Chrism Mass is a great way to come to a deeper appreciation of the sacramental life of the Church.

So, what exactly is the Chrism Mass, and why is it important?

What is the Chrism Mass?

During the Chrism Mass, the Archbishop, joined by every priest in the Archdiocese, blesses the oils that are going to be used in the sacraments in the year ahead.

Historically, this blessing took place during the Holy Thursday Mass, since Holy Thursday commemorates Christ’s institution of the ministerial priesthood. During his pontificate, Pope Pius XII separated the two celebrations, giving the blessing of the oils its own Mass. Dioceses throughout the world now celebrate the Mass on different days, but the connection to the priesthood remains at its heart, and it continues to be a powerful display of the unity of the gathered priests with their local shepherd, the bishop.

Lay people are strongly encouraged to participate in the Chrism Mass, too. With the bishop, priests and lay faithful participating together, the Chrism Mass is a particularly strong symbol of the unity of the people of God.

In his homily for the 2022 Chrism Mass, Pope Francis said, ‘Being priests, dear brothers, is a grace, a very great grace, yet it is not primarily a grace for us, but for our people.’

The Chrism Mass and the priesthood

Ministerial priesthood nevertheless has a specific mission, and the Chrism Mass provides an important opportunity to reflect on the grace and gift of this mission. Without the priesthood, after all, we would not have the sacraments.

In his 2006 Chrism Mass homily, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the newness of this priesthood and how it differs from ancient Jewish priesthood, observing that ‘new worship’ is based on the knowledge that ‘God makes a gift to us, and, filled with this gift, we become his: creation returns to the Creator …

So it is that the priesthood also became something new: it was no longer a question of lineage but of discovering oneself in the mystery of Jesus Christ. He is always the One who gives, who draws us to himself.

Jesus is ‘the supreme high priest’ (Hebrews 4:14), and the ministerial priesthood shares in this in a unique and specific way.

What are the oils?

Three oils blessed during the Chrism Mass:

  1. the oil of catechumens (also known as the oil of exorcism, which is used in Baptism)
  2. the oil of the infirm (used in the Anointing of the Sick)
  3. the oil of holy chrism (used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders).

The oil of holy chrism is particularly important since it is used in the sacraments that anoint with the Holy Spirit. It is a mixture of olive oil and basalm, an aromatic resin reminding us that as Christians we are called to give off the ‘fragrance’ of Jesus Christ, ‘the smell of life leading to life’ (2 Corinthian 2:14, 16).

Why oils?

Oils were a staple of ancient Jewish ritual. While they were used for ordinary things like cooking and lighting fires, they were also used to anoint people, to consecrate someone or something for a sacred purpose. Often, this would be either a priest, a prophet or a king.

Anointing with oils was also a sign of God’s blessing, of his strength and favour: ‘Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above other kings’ (Psalm 45:8). This practice carried over into the worship of the early Christians; they saw and knew the significance not only of the oils but of who Jesus was. In the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth is depicted as the ultimate priest, prophet and king, the one who comes to give his people abundant life. The word messiah means ‘anointed one’.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, ‘From the beginning until the end of time the whole of God’s work is a blessing’ (§1079). The only thing God has ever wanted to do is bless his people: bless them with life in abundance. Jesus is the one who brings this abundant life, and through the sacraments we are blessed with it. The oils symbolise this.

In blessing the oils, and in using them to bless others, we see and smell Christ at work, blessing those lost and far away with his divine, abundant life.