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There are three kinds of sacred oils, all of which signify the work of the Holy Spirit and symbolize it in that oil “serves to sweeten, to strengthen, to render supple” (Catholic Encyclopedia). The three holy oils are:
- The Oil of Catechumens (“Oleum Catechumenorum” or “Oleum Sanctum”) used in Baptism along with water, in the consecration of churches, in the blessing of Altars, in the ordination of priests, and, sometimes, in the crowning of Catholic kings and queens.
- The Holy Chrism (“Sanctum Chrisma”) or “Oil of Gladness,” which is olive oil mixed with a small amount of balm or balsam. It is used in Confirmation, Baptism, in the consecration of a Bishop, the consecration of a various things such as churches, chalices, patens, and bells.
- The Oil of the Sick (“Oleum Infirmorum”), which is used in Unction
The blessing of oils is performed by the Bishop of each diocese on Maundy Thursday (“Holy Thursday”) in the diocese’s cathedral during a “Chrism Mass.” The oils are kept in metal or glass bottles called “chrismatories,” “chrismals,” or “ampullae.” These vessels are then stored in a cabinet called an “ambry,” which is usually fixed to the wall of the sanctuary. Priests also have a portable “oilstock” which has a section for each of the three holy oils. Lay people are not to handle the holy oils, even to carry them, except in emergencies.
Just for fun
Legends surround the ampullae used to hold the holy oils used, in addition to the oil of catechumens, in coronating the monarchs of England and France.
A French legend relates that the holy oil used in crowning the French monarchs was brought down from Heaven by a dove bearing an ampulla at the Baptism of Clovis, the warring Salic Frank, by Bishop Remigius (“Remi”) at Reims on Christmas Day, A.D. 496. The conversion of Clovis to Christianity was the beginning of France’s status as “elder daughter of the Church.” The dove-borne vial, known in France as the “Sainte Ampoule,” is reserved at the cathedral of Reims to this day.
In England, the Blessed Virgin is said to have appeared to St. Thomas à Becket and given him an eagle-shaped ampulla filled with holy oil, and a golden spoon to be used to crown England’s Kings. The ampulla was lost for two centuries, but was discovered before Henry IV’s coronation in 1399. When the oil it contained was used on the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1559, it is said to have gone rancid; she is said to have remarked that “the grease smelt ill.” England’s eagle-shaped ampulla is now reserved at the Tower of London with the rest of the Crown Jewels.