by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the April 29, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Springtime is always a wonderful season as we watch the fields and forests coming back to life. After celebrating Confirmation at Holy Family Parish in Clark-ston last Sunday, I drove back home by way the north side of the Snake River from Clarkston to Wawawai (about 30 miles) and then up the canyon to connect with Highway 195 in Pullman. The scenery was spectacular. The hillsides were green, and the pool behind Lower Granite Dam provided a picturesque setting. I never tire of such magnificent countryside. God’s nature is wonderful!
This is the season of Confirmations. I always find them to be very joyful occasions as our young people are fully initiated into the Church with the reception of the sacraments of Confirmation and First Eucharist. Just as the beauty of nature can touch us in a wonderful, uplifting way, even more importantly do the sacraments of anointing provide a spiritual experience that consoles and enriches us.
The one liturgical ceremony that asks the priests of the diocese to gather together is the Chrism Mass. In our diocese we have the tradition of celebrating this special event on the morning of Holy Thursday. Many dioceses celebrate this Mass earlier in the week, or a week or so earlier, for pastoral reasons. This year we had an unusually good turnout for this meaningful liturgy. Since priests are asked to come to the Cathedral from around the diocese for the celebration, the liturgy also contains a renewal of their priestly commitment, along with the blessings of the oils.
Three oils are blessed during the ceremony – oils to be used for the coming year in all of the parishes. The Oil of Catechumens is blessed and used during the celebration of Baptism. Anointing with this oil signifies a prayer that the person being anointed will be protected from evil.
The second oil to be blessed is the Oil of the Sick. The Sacrament of the Sick is a very consoling sacrament. The sacrament is celebrated when one is ill or near death. In the ritual, the person is anointed on the forehead and on the hands. Especially at this more fragile time in a life, people are consoled by the presence and prayer of the Church as they encounters Jesus in this special way. The anointing is accompanied by the touch of the hand, which signifies loving presence and solidarity with the one who is ill. Many parishes celebrate this sacrament regularly for those who can receive the sacrament. In the community setting, the Sacrament of the Sick becomes even more powerful and meaningful.
The Sacrament of the Sick used to be called Extreme Unction. It was celebrated only when someone was dying or was killed. A person could even be anointed up to a couple hours after death. That practice of anointing after death no longer fits into the theology of the sacrament, however. On the other hand, since the Second Vatican Council, the sacrament’s name has been changed to the Sacrament of the Sick, to be celebrated in a much more meaningful way as people deal with illness. I think we are over the day when we judge someone to be at death’s door just because a priest comes to anoint. And from a practical standpoint, if a person is going to the hospital for surgery, the patient’s contact with the parish priest to receive the anointing of the sick beforehand is most appropriate.
The sacred Chrism is consecrated at the Mass of Chrism. Basically it is olive oil, into which is mixed balsam, a very fragrant substance which makes the Chrism so aromatic. Chrism is used in baptism, signifying the priestly character of all of us. In the celebration of Confirmation, the candidate is anointed on the forehead and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is used in the ordination of priests as their open hands are anointed.
Chrism is used in the ordination of a bishop, poured on top of the head. And finally, Chrism is used to consecrate an altar. Just recently I had the privilege of anointing the altar the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel in the Kennedy student complex on the Gonzaga University campus, just as I did a year ago for the altar in the chapel of the new Bishop White Seminary. The ceremony is not often witnessed; usually it takes place during the dedication of a new church. The Chrism is poured on the four corners of the altar and in the middle, and then the celebrant smears the chrism over the entire altar. A very beautiful and meaningful prayer accompanies this liturgical action.
These rituals of anointing are a real treasure for us in the Church. They remind us in a special way of our encounters with Christ in the celebration of the sacraments, of how the touch of anointing leaves us affirmed and loved by Jesus and the Church. May we continue to be grateful for this gift and blessing.