This past Thursday evening many priests, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese gathered at the Cathedral to celebrate the Chrism Mass. This is a beautiful and ancient liturgy at which two important things take place: the priests publically renew their priestly promises and the Oils of Catechumens and the Sick are blessed and the Sacred Chrism is consecrated. This Mass customarily takes place on Holy Thursday morning. This is because after renewing their priestly promises, the priests will then return to their parishes and follow Jesus’ example and wash his parishioners’ feet to begin the Triduum. But the custom also assumes a diocese is the size of a city or small county, where the priests and faithful can easily be at the Cathedral in the morning and their local parishes in the evening. Many dioceses, like our own, are much larger and so having the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday would preclude a large number of people attending from all around the diocese. This is why such dioceses have the Mass either earlier in Holy Week or, as we do, the week before.
The three Holy Oils are distributed to the parishes (often via deacons, being the practical and service-oriented folks they are) and are used throughout the Diocese for the next year. The Oil of Catechumens and the Sacred Chrism are used for Baptism, the Oil of the Sick is used for the Anointing of the Sick, and Sacred Chrism is used for Confirmation, the ordination of priests and the consecration of new altars. The bishop alone blesses the Oils of Catechumens and the Sick as “high priest” of his diocese. However, for the Sacred Chrism, all of the priests present consecrate the Chrism along with the bishop. It is analogous to priests concelebrating at Mass: they shadow the gestures and pray the same words at the consecration (words of institution) of the bread and wine along with the main celebrant. This is because both priests and bishops share in the same priesthood, though to different degrees. It is a sign of unity within the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Holy Orders.
In the renewal of priestly promises, the bishop asks his priests in the presence of God’s holy people, to renew their commitment to being united and conformed to Jesus Christ and to be faithful stewards of God’s grace by celebrating the Eucharist and other rites of the Church as well as teaching for the sanctification and building up of God’s holy people. Finally, he exhorts those gathered to pray for their priests as well as for him to be faithful to his apostolic office despite his lowliness. The final prayer of the rite sums things up beautifully: May the Lord keep us all in his charity and lead all of us, shepherds and flock, to eternal life.