This morning was the annual Chrism Mass for the diocese at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg. It is one of my favorite moments in my service as bishop as all my brother priests gather together annually publicly to recommit themselves to their priestly ministry, and the oil of the catechumens, infirm and sacred chrism are blessed in the case of the first two and consecrated in the case of the third. The Cathedral is always packed as each parish sends representatives, at least one for each of the oils and priests and deacons are present in great number. I have always thought that our diocesan Office of Worship as well as the staff of the Cathedral really knock themselves out to provide a glorious liturgy which makes all present proud. A large choir gathered from the parishes of the diocese sing their hearts out as well. There is nothing like a full Cathedral, brother priests united with me in our privileged and blessed ministry, the singing of the “Gloria” sneaking back into Liturgy having largely been absent for these thirty-eight days of Lent to reassure all present that the Church remains vibrant and strong.
I mentioned above that the oils in use throughout the coming year are either blessed or consecrated during this annual Mass. The Oil of Catechumens is used at baptism as the first of the two sacred oils which are parts of this sacrament of initiation. The Oil of the Infirm is used only during the administration of the Sacrament of the Sick. Both of these oils come from a type of Olive Oil and they are blessed both in large urns and also in other containers brought today from the parishes and held up during the part of the ceremony which comprises the blessing (following the promise of recommitment of the priests and the homily.) Olive oil was both precious but plentiful at the time of our Lord and when mention was made yesterday in the Gospel for Monday of Holy Week of Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus breaking out a precious alabaster jar and anointing the feet of Jesus, one senses its intrinsic value in Jewish life two thousand years ago. Sacred Chrism is the same olive oil to which is added a perfume, making it even richer. Used in ancient times to anoint kings, chrism has a special place in the life of our Church today. It is an integral part of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and ordination to the priesthood and to the episcopacy (in the former the ordaining bishop anoints the palms of the hands of the one just ordained as a priest and in the latter, the ordaining bishop pours the oil over the head of the man being ordained as a bishop). There is only one other moment in Church life when the oil of Sacred Chrism is used for something other than the administration of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders and that is when an altar is consecrated in a new Church or a remodeled Church and in the case of the former, it is also used on the walls of a totally new Church. The Cathedral asks for a small stipend of each parish to cover the cost of the oils/perfume and that has remained the same ever since I arrived (making me perhaps the only oil producing leader who has not raised oil prices in sixteen years).
Finally, at one point during the consecration of the Sacred Chrism, the bishop breathes into the urns holding the oil. Approaching seventy one years of age, I notice that the length of time I am able to breathe is becoming less and less with each passing year. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Chrism Mass (and it still is in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica) was celebrated on Holy Thursday morning and the priests had to rush out immediately for their parishes to prepare for the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper later that night. After the Council it began to be moved from that date to another day either in Holy Week or the week just prior because of distances to be travelled. Think of this for a moment. The Diocese of St. Petersburg and its five counties (Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus) is only 4,500 square miles roughly. My friend Bishop Paul Etienne who is the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming has the whole state or 100,000 square miles. Some parishes drive six hours to attend the Chrism Mass there. I am so lucky in so many ways, including and especially the priests and deacons who share the mantle of pastoral ministry and leadership with me. If you are in search of cheap oil but rich in symbol, cast a glance at the ambery in your parish where the oils are displayed and thank the Lord for this great sign of blessing and consecration.
Finally, click here if you wish to read my homily at today’s Mass of the Chrism. You can click here to watch the video of it. To see more photos taken during the Chrism Mass, click here. More Thursday on the first night of the Triduum.