The stark setting of this year’s Chrism Mass, also called the Mass of the Holy Oils, illustrated the radical change from life as we know it during this time of pandemic.
Typically celebrated with a standing-room-only congregation of priests, clergy, religious, seminarians and lay faithful, the Mass is a highlight of the liturgical year. It unites the faithful in support of their priests as the latter renew their promises of priestly service. It celebrates the sacramental life of the Church as the bishop blesses the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of the Catechumens, and consecrates the Sacred Chrism.
This year’s Chrism Mass, celebrated May 12 at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg, continued to hold those elements of unity and celebration, although in a different way. A livestream of the Mass gave the faithful an up-close view of the blessing of the oils and connected the priests to renew their promises virtually.
“Over these past weeks, we’ve had to put aside what has been typical in much of our lives, and adapt to what is necessary – necessary to fight this virulent pandemic,” said Bishop Ronald Gainer.
He spoke of the stark contrast between this year’s Chrism Mass and previous ones – including its move from the Monday of Holy Week to the Fifth Week of Easter – and of the faithful’s rightful longing for the Eucharist and the re-opening of churches.
The COVD-19 pandemic and its period of quarantine and social distancing has been unparalleled in our lives, but the Church itself is no stranger to pandemics and times of upheaval, Bishop Gainer said.
He pointed to an illustration that St. Augustine used early in the fifth century to demonstrate that God was not absent to the faithful during the fall of the Western Roman Empire – the image of pressing olives to produce oil.
“He reasoned that pressing or crushing the olive fruit was an active process. Although destructive, it was aimed at positive results. Through pressing, good oil was set free to run into the collection vats,” Bishop Gainer said. “Applying the image to the uncertainties and the calamities of his day, Augustine wrote in a letter: ‘The world reels under crushing blows. The old man is shaken out. The flesh is pressed. But, the spirit turns to clear, flowing oil.’”
“As we focus our attention on the precious oil of the olive, perhaps it can help us to remember how that oil came about: only by its being pressed, its being crushed, do we have the positive results of this good, beneficial oil,” the bishop remarked.
During the Mass, the bishop blessed the Oil of the Sick, contained in vessels tied with purple ribbon, and the Oil of the Catechumens, in vessels with green ribbon. He also consecrated the Sacred Chrism, adorned with white ribbon. All of the oils were disbursed into smaller containers that will be distributed to parishes for use in the sacraments in the upcoming year.
The Oil of the Catechumens strengthens candidates for baptism as they renounce sin and the devil. The Oil of the Sick provides the sick with a remedy for illness of mind and body, so that they may have strength to bear their suffering, resist evil and obtain the forgiveness of sins.
Sacred Chrism, mixed with fragrant balsam, is used in the Sacrament of Confirmation, the anointing of priests and bishops during ordination, and in the dedication of new churches and altars.
Bishop Gainer said that “through the consecration and blessing of these oils, we are assured of the continuation of our life in the Anointed One, Christ Jesus.”
United as One Body
For Father Kyle Sahd, pastor of St. Theresa Parish in New Cumberland, not being able to be physically united with fellow priests and the laity at the Chrism Mass is bittersweet.
“But I am always reminded that we are together at the altar, and that gives me great comfort. The Mass is celebrated for the greater honor and glory of God, and all of the Church is present,” he said.
That’s a comfort he takes as a pastor separated from the faithful, too.
“It is very difficult not being physically present,” he said. “Not being able to be connected with the sacraments is very painful, but we are encouraged by Spiritual Communion.”
When it was announced that the Chrism Mass would be celebrated in an empty Cathedral and available via livestream, Father Sahd said he immediately reflected on the connection that priests share, even in the present circumstances.
“Whether we are there at the Cathedral, or whether we are separate in our own parishes, gathering with the bishop virtually or physically, we are already bound to the bishop by our ordination and bound to Christ by our ordination,” he said. “We are together in our vocation while taking care of the people in our parish. We’re united as brother priests and with the bishop, doing the work that God has called us to do in this very unique time.”
Making his Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service, as all priests do at the Chrism Mass, carried no less weight even though it was done remotely, said Father Sahd, who was ordained in 2014.
“It reminds me of my ordination. It reminds me of that first time in which I promised celibacy, obedience and prayer,” he said. “It also reminds me of who I am in Christ. It reminds me that God has given me this gift…and I am to use it for the good of the people.”
“We are all united through our baptism, and that’s what is so beautiful about the Chrism Mass,” Father Sahd said. “There is no division; we all are united under Jesus Christ, and we all have certain responsibilities within that body to help each other to grow to become saints.”
“It’s always one of my favorite liturgies throughout the year, and I always get very emotional about the beauty of it,” he added. “It shows the bond that we have in our love for the Lord and for one another.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness