In ancient times, oil was a sign of abundance and joy. 

In the Old Testament, in particular, kings, priests and, occasionally, prophets were anointed with oil, symbolizing that person’s goodness and healing presence in the community.  

Throughout Sacred Scripture the spiritual symbolism of oil is evident, perhaps nowhere as prominent as in well-known Psalm 23 “You anoint my head with oil,” which signified favor and strength from the Lord.  

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Bishop Michael G. Duca anoints the hands of Father Tim Grimes during the ordination Mass in May. Chrism oil is used during ordination.  Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator.  

 

During those times, the oil signified sanctification, healing, strengthening, beautification, dedication, consecration and sacrifice.  

In those days to be anointed of the Lord indicated that one was receiving a special vocation from the Lord and was being empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill that vocation.  

Even today, one of the more moving moments of the ordination Mass comes when the bishop consecrates the palms of each new priest with chrism oil. In the ordination of a new bishop, the presiding bishop or archbishop anoints the head of the ordained, also with chrism oil 

St. Bonaventure, in writing about the reverence of holy oils, said that the dispensation of holy oil should only be entrusted to priests in general. And that the oil should be “touched by none except consecrated hands.”  

The use of holy oils for sacramental rituals dates to the early church. The “oil of catechumens” signifies cleansing and strengthening. The anointing of the sick with “oil of the sick” brings healing and comfort. And the use of sacred chrism for the post-baptismal anointing and at confirmation and ordination is a sign of consecration.  

Oil is also used for certain blessings, such as the dedication of churches and altars.  

Each of the three oils can be olive or vegetable oil.  

Traditionally, the oils are blessed by the bishop during Holy Week at the Chrism Mass when he breathes on each of three jars. “Chrism” has balm mixed in with it.

After the Chrism Mass has ended, the oils are distributed to representatives of each church, who take them to their parish. 

Typically, the oils are stored in three urns by the altar or near the baptismal font. 

A lesser amount can be transferred to a smaller receptacle for use during the celebration of a sacrament. There was a time when the three oils were kept in an ambry, a lock wall cupboard. Some older church buildings still have a little door in the sanctuary wall that’s marked “Olea<Sancta” (Latin for “holy oils”) 

Source: Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices by Ann Ball