Some Food for Thought on Sacramentals, Particularly Holy Water, Blessed Salt and Blessed Oil
- The Sacramentals: Christ in Daily Life by Fr Philip Weller
In the ordination service, the Church, through the bishop, anoints and blesses the hands of the newly made priest, accompanying the action with these words: “May it please you, O Lord, to consecrate and sanctify these hands by this anointing and our blessing; that whatever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” By this and other ceremonies in the rite for ordination the young priest has it impressed on him that his sacramental ministry, namely, the power to offer sacrifice, the duty of preaching the word of God in Mass and of distributing the Bread of life to the people, the duty of administering the other sacraments, the duty of dispensing blessings and other sacramentals–that all these constitute the main reason for his being what he is, a mediator between God and men, the dispenser of God’s mysteries.
For a priest all else must be kept subordinate to his sacramental ministry. In the first age of the Church the apostles, as soon as they discovered that other works were interfering with their strictly priestly ministrations, ordained other men as deacons or assistants, whose function it was to take over a large share of those activities not absolutely required of pastors of souls. So nowadays too the priest can find auxiliaries to aid him in the office of teaching, in the good work of visiting the sick and seeking out the stray sheep, in tending to the needs of the poor and the widows and orphans, in keeping files and financial books, in running parish organizations and recreational programs. But he cannot turn over to them his sacramental powers, neither the greater ones of consecrating at Mass, of baptizing, of absolving, of anointing, nor even the lesser ones of bestowing on persons and objects the official blessing of the Church. Her sacramentals, then, ought not to be “the twentieth-century stepchildren of Mother Church,” as someone has referred to them.
If it is true that in the world of today conditions are not conducive to a high evaluation and appreciation of the seven sacraments of Christ, then surely it can be admitted all the more readily that the sacramentals fare even worse. If a certain measure of humility and simplicity is needed by man to recognize God at work with, and in, and for us in the greater mysteries, the Eucharist and the other sacraments, it is required even in greater measure to recognize His action in those consecratory acts which are lesser than those seven, namely, the sacramentals. Pride and sophistication are a hindrance to understanding that God, when He created the universe, consecrated all creation, not alone man, but every lower form; and that Christ, in redeeming the world after the Fall, removed the curse fallen on creation, not only from man but from the lesser species as well. Thus for a long time the sacramental acts such as the many consecrations and blessings of the Church have been, if not actually disdained, looked upon with apathy and indifference by her children. So much so that some are apt to be disedified rather than edified when they are made aware that the Church has a mind to speak a blessing on horse, silkworm, bonfire, beer, bridal chamber, medicine, or lard.
God’s ultimate purpose in creating the world is the manifestation of His goodness and excellence, and a communication of them in part to His creatures. Consequently, creation’s first reason for existence is to glorify the Creator. Human beings fulfill this obligation to glorify God by living in conformity with the laws which govern human existence, but they do so more nobly still in those positive acts of religion, sacrifice, sacraments, social and private prayer, consecrations, and blessings. For in this latter way man does not praise God in isolation, but he is united with the praise which his elder brother, Jesus Christ, everlastingly renders to the Blessed Trinity. Irrational creatures fulfill their obligation also in their existence and functions, according to the laws that govern their nature. This is their silent voice of praise. But lower creation too is destined to take part in the direct and positive act of praising the Creator. The psalms and canticles leave no doubt about this. The fall of man caused lower creatures to be separated from God, for they were bound to God through mankind. And they became once more consecrated in the redemption, not purely for their own sake, but for the purposes of higher creation. Therefore, in union with man, and in union with the God-Man, the rest of creation participates in the praise which without ceasing raises its voice to the adorable Trinity. In the Epistle to the Romans St. Paul records that the complete emancipation of creation will not be effected until the end of time. But ever since our Lord transfigured lower creatures by employing them in sacramental ways–consider His use of bread, wine, water, oil, sacred signs–material things have been participating with Him and with man in divine worship. And where Christ left off, the Church continues. The consecration and transfiguration of the creatures of God is done through sacraments and sacramentals. The passion and resurrection of Jesus notwithstanding, the individual man is not justified until the fruit of these momentous acts is communicated to him by way of sacramental sanctification. Lower creatures in similar fashion are freed from their enslavement by being sacramentalized. Before the Church will use them in the service of God or of men, she wills that first they be exorcised of any allegiance to Satan, then sanctified by her consecratory hand.
Certainly there is a difference of kind and of efficacy between the seven sacraments and the lesser sacraments called sacramentals. There is a difference of degree in the seven sacraments themselves. One is not so necessary or sublime as another. Furthermore, it is not true to say without qualification that one distinction between sacraments and sacramentals is that the former owe their institution to Christ, the latter to the Church. For some of the sacramentals definitely come directly from Christ, exactly how many and actually which ones is not clear. There is one sacramental, however, of whose origin there is not a particle of doubt. This is the mandatum, the washing of feet, carried out by our Lord at the Last Supper, and today still used in the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. What requires stressing here is that men should not belittle the sacramentals because of the fact that they owe their institution in greatest part not to the positive will and act of Christ, but instead to the will and act of the Church. For in the light of the doctrine of the mystical body both have a sacred origin, the sacraments from the personal, historical Christ, the sacraments from the mystic Christ–Christ living and working in His mystical bride, the Church. The sacramentals are aptly designated as extensions and radiation of the sacraments. Both are sources of divine life; both have an identical purpose, divine life. They have, moreover, an identical cause, the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; albeit they differ in nature, efficacy, and intensity.
Because man is weakened by sin both in his mental and physical faculties, he needs in striving for salvation, in addition to the sacraments themselves, other supernatural aids constantly at hand, in order to overcome his own inherent weakness as well as the obstacles put in his way by creature things. These auxiliaries, the sacramentals, are the many powerful supports by which man’s course to heaven can be lightened, affording protection against the enemies of his soul and promoting bodily well-being in the interests of the soul. As the code of Canon Law defines them: sacramentals are objects and actions which the Church is wont to use, somewhat as she uses the sacraments, in order to obtain through her intercession effects, especially effects of a spiritual nature (can. 1144).
As Christ has endowed with infallible grace the outward signs by which sacraments are effected, so in a similar way the Church has endowed with spiritual powers the outward signs by which sacramentals are constituted. And why are such simple things like the sacramentals so efficacious in the life of grace? Because their efficacy is dependent on the power of the Church’s impetration, and not solely on the devotion of the subject who uses them. We say that the sacraments work “ex opere operato,” that is, in virtue of the outward signs that are posited. On the other hand, we are accustomed to hear that the sacramentals work “ex opere operantis,” which would mean in virtue of the intensity of devotion in those who use them. Yet this is only part of the truth. The thing is cast in an altogether different light when it is stated in full precision, namely, that the sacramentals work “ex opere operantis Ecclesiae,” which means that their efficacy is in first place dependent on the power of the Church’s intercession, and only secondly on the devout dispositions of the subject concerned. Back in the Middle Ages, William of Paris stated: “The efficacy of the sacramentals is rooted in the nobility of the Church, which is so pleasing to God and so beloved by Him that she never meets with a refusal from Him.” The matter could hardly be expressed better. Owing to the resurgence of the doctrine of the mystical body, it has been granted to our times to view the Church once more in her true nature as the body of Christ, flesh of His flesh, bone of His bone, more intimate a part of Him than a bride is of her bridegroom. Therefore, it is not exactly improper to speak of an efficacy “ex opere operato” in the case of sacramentals. For example, an altar that receives the consecration of the Church is consecrated and remains consecrated, no matter how fervent and devout was the bishop who performed the consecration.
Sacramentals have been classified in many ways. But a simple and clear way of classifying them is to divide them into three groups. First, those that lay the basis for divine worship by creating the place and the atmosphere, by raising up certain persons–apart from bishops, priests, and deacons–officially designated to perform divine worship, and by supplying the appurtenances necessary for divine worship, for example: (a) the consecration of a church and an altar, or the consecration of a cemetery; (b) the blessing of an abbot, of monks and virgins, of the ministers in minor orders; (c) the consecration of a chalice or paten, the consecration of a church bell, the blessing of vestments, etc. Second, those used in the course of celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments; for example, the incensation of the altar, the reading of the Gospel, the last blessing, or the giving of salt and the anointings in baptism. Third, those that extend from the worship in church to the Christian home and family circle, to the occupations of farming, industry, and trades; for example, the blessing of a home, field, animals, printing presses, fire-engine, etc.
Although we have stressed the truth that the sacramentals derive their efficacy chiefly from the intercessory power of the Church, we may not minimize the role played by man’s own subjective dispositions. The sacraments, too, for that matter, demand something of the individual recipient–at the very least that the subject place no obstacle in the way of grace. But in the case of the sacramentals man’s cooperation has a very large part to play if they are to attain their full purpose. Their function is to provide an atmosphere in which the virtue of religion can thrive, and to produce a psychological reaction in man, to raise his thoughts and aspirations out of the realm of the profane and up to the realm of the sacred, to fix his heart on the things of the spirit, to impress on his consciousness God’s will for him and God’s providence always hovering over him.
Before ascending into heaven our Lord, in His infinite wisdom and love, bequeathed to His followers the seven sacraments, which were to occupy the center of their religious life, to be like so many milestones for them on the journey to heaven. But He also foresaw that the periphery of the Christian life could be sanctified by further supports of a lesser kind, supernatural helps that would be constantly at hand, even every hour, serving to consecrate the works and activities of the day and to lighten its burdens and sorrows. Thus He indicated to the apostles in broad lines how they might make use of other signs and symbols in furthering the work of sanctifying souls. Seeing that the Master Himself had employed the sign of the cross, the act of exorcism, the washing of feet at the Last Supper, and had commanded them to do like things in His name, the apostles were soon imitating Him, performing exorcisms and blessing creatures, as St. Paul has testified in 1 Timothy 4.5. Certainly the Church was inspired by the Holy Spirit, when, following the apostolic period, she began to introduce rites that we now call sacramentals, such as the solemn blessing of baptismal water, of oils, salt, and bread, of first-fruits, and the blessing of milk and honey in connection with first holy communion of the neophytes on Easter morning, to mention only some of the ceremonies that very early embellished the celebration of Mass and the administration of the other sacraments. How wrong were men like Luther and Harnack when they asserted that the sacramentals of the Catholic Church were an invention of the Middle Ages, and scarcely better than a return to the legalistic rites of the Talmud and the Pharisees. In response to the natural craving of man for ritual and ceremonial, for tokens and memorials, the Church gave her children, instead of “panis et circenses,” blessed bread and religious processions, instead of antiques, sacred relics and medals. The legitimate demands of a Christian people were as much a factor as the will of the Church herself in promoting the development and the multiplication of pious ceremonies. Soon every province of life was consecrated by the Church’s benediction. From the church edifice the sacramentals widen out to embrace the totality of Christian life. Home and hearth, granary and workshop, field and meadow, vineyard and orchard, fountain and river receive a consecration. In private life there was a blessing for the wife who had recently conceived and one for the woman in the pangs of labor; a blessing for the lad who had just reached the age when he could be introduced to the ABC’s, and one for the young man about to sprout his first beard; for the sick, blessed medicaments of water, salt, bread, and herbs, instead of a doctor, harder to come by then than even now. Public life also had its blessings, a blessing of a king and queen, emperor and empress, a blessing of a knight and his accouterments of sword and lance, a blessing of public penitents, of pilgrims, of crusaders. In time of plague and famine, a deprecatory blessing against rats, mice, locusts, and noxious vermin. In time of calamity, a blessing to protect the people against fire, wind, earthquake, and flood.
In all this, to be sure, abuse and superstition eventually crept in, especially in the later Middle Ages. When diocesan synods failed to stem such misuse of sacred things, Paul V finally stepped in, and by a Bull of June 16, 1614, published the official Roman Ritual for the universal Church, to which model all diocesan rituals were thenceforth to conform. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the abuse was revived, particularly through the religious orders, who printed private collections of blessings and especially exorcisms with prayers and formulas of such a nature as to outdo even the superstitions of the late Middle Ages.
Perhaps it is a conscientious fear of reviving superstition that prompts us to be so hesitant about restoring the sacramentals to their onetime place of honor. Or perhaps, as we say, you can’t turn back the clock. Young men no longer grow beards, save for an exceptional group, and professional exterminators have arisen to make short shrift of every kind of pest, from bedbug to termite. Admittedly we would look foolish trying to revive some of the olden pious customs. Yet there are a good many sacramentals, most of those given in this ritual, that could be resurrected to considerable profit. With some efforts at instruction and with continual encouragement, the people’s sensibilities as to their significance and value would be aroused, as it has been shown where it has been tried.
- On Holy Water From the Sisters of Carmel
Water represents life, for without it, no living thing can survive. In the creation of water, God destined it to also be the means of life for our souls, for it is through water that we come to the life of Sanctifying Grace in our souls in the Sacrament of Baptism.
Salt, sprinkled by the Prophet Elisha, healed the barren waters. A rock, struck by Moses, brought forth life giving water in the desert. A Centurion pierced the side of Christ, bringing forth a stream of blood and water. From Creation, to the parting of the Red Sea, to the Miracle at Cana, to Our Lord’s Baptism – the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament, is filled with passages that illustrate the spiritual importance of water. But for the Catholic, water is first and foremost a reminder of our baptism—one of the most significant events in the life of a Christian. In baptism, we are freed from sin, born anew spiritually, and adopted into the covenant family of God. Many of the saints, realizing the importance of baptism, venerated the place and day of their baptism with great fervor, just as we would celebrate our physical birthday. St. Louis de Montfort even changed his last name to “de Montfort” as Montfort was the town in which he was baptized.
The ritual use of this precious substance is ancient and once again rooted in the Old Testament. When the Israelites entered the Temple, they had to undergo purification by immersion in a mikvah (Jewish purification ceremony). These ritual purifications by water prefigured Christian Baptism. St. John the Baptist, in another foreshadowing of the Sacrament, used water in his Baptism of repentance. Most importantly of all, Christ Himself established the pouring of water as the form for the Sacrament of Baptism.
The water for Baptism is solemnly blessed on Easter Saturday during the Easter Vigil, but for centuries, the Church has blessed water for other uses, and this water is called “Holy Water.” During the Asperges, at the beginning of a Solemn Mass, the Priest sprinkles the people with Holy Water while psalm 50 is sung. Before entering the Church, it is a pious custom to bless oneself with holy water in the form of a cross while making a brief act of Contrition. Holy water is also used by the Priest in all other kinds of blessings, the blessings of Churches, altars, and other Sacramentals.
These ceremonies and customs are reminders to us of our Baptism, and through the power of the Holy water we can dispel the devil and remit venial sin. By using Holy Water, we purify our souls and are better prepared to receive the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist.
These prayers ascend to heaven each time you take holy water and sprinkle a drop either for yourself or for another, whether he be present or absent; and God’s blessings descend for soul and body. The devil hates holy water because of its power over him. He cannot long abide in a place or near a person that is often sprinkled with this blessed water. “I have found by experience that there is nothing from which the devils fly more quickly than from holy water. They also fly from the cross, but they return almost immediately. Certainly, the power of holy water must be great; for my part, my soul feels particular comfort in taking it, and very generally a refreshment and interior delight which I cannot express” – St. Theresa of Avila
Holy water is not limited to Churches; in fact, many Catholics have holy water fonts in their homes or keep holy water in small bottles. Did we realize now, as we shall realize after death, the many benefits which may be derived from holy water, we would use it far more frequently, and with greater faith and reverence.
Catholics often keep a font near their front door, in their bedrooms’ doorways, and near the family altar. Use the water in the same way you do at church, dipping your fingers into it and making the Sign of the Cross. Bless your children with it as you tuck them in at night, using your thumb to sign them with a cross of holy water on their foreheads. Use it in time of temptation to dispel the devil, during fires storms or other calamities.
Holy water, sprinkled with faith and piety, can move the Sacred Heart to bless your loved ones and protect them from all harm of soul and body. When worry and fear take possession of your heart, hasten to your holy water font, and give you dear ones the benefit of the Church’s prayers.
Only in Purgatory can one understand how ardently a poor soul longs for holy water. If we desire to make a host of intercessors for ourselves, let us try to realize now some of their yearnings, and never forget them at the holy water font. The holy souls nearest to Heaven may need the sprinkling of only one drop to relieve their pining souls.
- Blessed and Exorcised Salt by Fr John Hampsch, CMF
Salt in the ancient world was a precious commodity (even monopolized by the royalty in Egypt and Persia). Roman soldiers were partially paid with packets of salt (“sal” in Latin); this was the origin of our word “salary” and of phrases like “worth his salt,” etc. Being costly, it was an appropriate offering to God as a “covenant of salt” (Lev. 2: 13; II Chron. 13:5; Num. 18:19) used in sacrifices by the Israelites (Ezek. 43:24) and for the accompanying sacrificial meal (Gen. 31:54).
Belief in its preservative and healing properties led to its use to dry and harden the skin of newborns (Ezek. 16:4) and to prevent umbilical cord infection. Used for 3500 years to preserve meats from deterioration, it became a symbol of preservation and spiritual incorruptibility that was to characterize anyone offering sacrificial worship. Shared at the sacrificial meal, salt became a symbol of friendship and hospitality, a custom-symbol still used today in Arab culture.
Jesus referred to this salt-symbolized friendship covenant in Mark 9:50: “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another”–that is, “preserve that quality (flavor) that makes you a blessing to one another.” (Note the double symbol of preservation and flavoring.)
This double primary symbolization is also found in Paul’s advice in Col. 4:6: ”Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” That is, let it be wholesome and savory, preserved from the corrupting conversation of worldlings (3:8 and Eph 4:29). (His use of the word salt may also have referred to another of its symbols: spiritual wisdom, since the Latin word for savor or taste, “sapientia”, is the same as for wisdom.)
Some or all of these symbols may have been implied in Jesus’ words to his chosen ones, describing them as the “salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). He especially indicated that they were to oppose the world’s corruption, reminding them that, as salt must preserve its own anti-corruptive quality, they too must preserve their anti-corruptive influence in a sin-corrupted world. (See Luke 14:34).
The blessing promised by God on food and water, as well as the prevention of miscarriages and agricultural catastrophes (Exod. 23:25-26) was extended by God through Elisha in Jericho (II Kings 2:20-21), when he was inspired to put salt into the contaminated water. Adding salt to already brackish water to decontaminate it, made the miracle all the more impressive, since one would expect the opposite effect. This first miracle of Elisha is the primary Scriptural basis for the sacramental use of blessed salt today, as the Roman Ritual indicates.
As a Catholic sacramental, salt blessed by the liturgical prayer of a priest may be used by itself, unmixed, as in exorcisms, and [formerly in the exorcistic prayer at baptism], or it may be mixed with water to make holy water, as the Ritual prescribes (reminiscent of Elisha’s miracle). In whichever form, it is intended to be an instrument of grace to preserve one from the corruption of evil occurring as sin, sickness, demonic influence, etc.
As in the case of all sacramentals, its power comes not from the sign itself, but by means of the Church’s official (liturgical, not private) prayer of blessing–a power the Church derives from Christ himself (see Matt. 16:19 and 18:18). As the Vatican II document on the Liturgy states (art. 61), both Sacraments and sacramentals sanctify us, not of themselves, but by power flowing from the redemptive act of Jesus, elicited by the Church’s intercession to be directed through those external signs and elements. Hence sacramentals like blessed salt, holy water, medals, etc. are not to be used superstitiously as having self-contained power, but as “focus-points” funneling one’s faith toward Jesus, just as a flag is used as a “focus-point” of patriotism, or as handkerchiefs were used to focus faith for healing and deliverance by Paul (Acts 19:12).
Thus used non-superstitiously, modest amounts of salt may be sprinkled in one’s bedroom, or across thresholds to prevent burglary, in cars for safety, etc. A few grains in drinking water or used in cooking or as food seasoning often bring astonishing spiritual and physical benefits, as I have personally witnessed many times. As with the use of Sacraments, much depends on the faith and devotion of the person using salt or any sacramental. This faith must be Jesus-centered, as was the faith of the blind man in John 9; he had faith in Jesus, not in the mud and spittle used by Jesus to heal him.
In light of this, we can see why Vatican II states that “there is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of persons and the praise of God.” (art. 61 of Liturgy document). Hence new sacramentals may also be added when rituals are revised (art. 79). Blessed salt is certainly not a new sacramental, but the Holy Spirit seems to be leading many to a new interest in its remarkable power as an instrument of grace and healing.
- Blessed Oil by Abbot Andrew Miles, OSB
“They shall come streaming to the Lord’s blessings: the grain, the wine, and the oil” (Jer.31:12) In these words the prophet Jeremiah foretells the blessings that God would one day pour out upon his people. Oil in particular was a special sign of God’s blessing among the many beautiful provisions of the Good Shepherd is his anointing: “You anoint my head with oil.” (Ps. 23:5) The tribe of Asher was especially blessed among all the tribes of Israel (the word “asher” means “happy” or “blessed”) because, as Moses said, “the oil of his olive trees runs over his feet” (Dt. 33:24). It is no wonder then, that oil became a symbol of the fullness of God’s blessings poured out through His Holy Spirit, and that the expected savior would be the Anointed One (Messiah or Christ). Thus oil has become a rich symbol of our life in Jesus, or our sharing in His anointing and in the outpouring of His Holy Spirit. Using oil can be a beautiful and powerful way of renewing our life in Jesus, especially when this oil has been “made holy by God’s word and by prayer” (I Tim. 4:5).
Perhaps no other element in the bible was used for such a wide variety of purposes as was oil. Listed below are only some of them. Oil was used in cooking and baking. In particular, the loaves offered in sacrifice were to be made with oil (Ex. 29:2). Oil was often mixed with perfumes and used to make oneself more beautiful and attractive (Ruth 3:3; Jdt.16:2). As such it was also used to honor guests. Anointing them with perfumed oil was a sign of great honor and respect, as well as a way of offering refreshment after a journey ( Lk. 7:37-38, 46; Ps 23:5). Perhaps for this same reason it was often referred to as an “oil of gladness,” bringing joy to the heart (Ps. 45:8; Is. 61:3; Heb 1:9).
Oil too was a source of light, being used in lamps both in homes and in the temple (Ex. 27:20; Mt. 25:3). The flame thus kindled likewise became a symbol of the Holy Spirit, whose fire purifies and enflames us with love and zeal (Acts 2:3). The healing properties of oil were also recognized (Ez.16:9; Lk 10:34). The apostles used it for healing, apparently at the instruction of Jesus Himself (Mk. 6:13), and this practice was continued in the early church (Jas. 5:14). Moses gave instructions for the making of a sacred anointing oil (Ex. 30:22-25). With this oil, the Israelites were to consecrate the priests (Ex. 29:7; Lev. 8:12). Even the meeting tent and the objects of worship were to be anointed with this oil, and thus consecrated to God (Ex. 30: 26-29; Lev. 8:10-11).
The kings of Israel were also anointed with oil (I Kings 1:39); II Kings 9:6). Furthermore, we read that when Samuel anointed David as king: “from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David” (I Sam. 16:13). From this experience, and perhaps others like it, oil became a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The prophets therefore who spoke under the influence of the Spirit were considered to be anointed by God (Is. 61:1), and were sometimes even anointed with oil (I Kings 19:16).
The expected savior of Israel, being the Anointed One, was to receive the full and complete anointing of God’s Spirit. Every blessing given through oil in the Old Testament was to be poured out in fullness upon the Messiah, and through Him upon all God’s people. Throughout his entire life Jesus showed Himself to be the Anointed One. At His baptism in particular, He received a powerful anointing of the Spirit, as Peter later bore witness: God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good works and healing all who were in the grip of the devil” (Acts 10:38).
The New Testament witnesses also to Jesus; threefold anointing as King (Lk. 1:33), Prophet (Lk.4:18), and Priest (Heb. 7:17), and to His being anointed with the oil of gladness (Heb.1:9). In short, the fullness of anointing, the fullness of God’s Spirit, is to be found in Jesus. It is to Him that we must go to receive of that anointing. “The Disciples were called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Since Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, it is not surprising that his followers soon came to be called “Christians”, “anointed ones.” To be a Christian means to share in the anointing of Jesus, to receive His Holy Spirit and the blessings the Spirit imparts.
How do we do this: How do we receive Jesus’ anointing? Scripture mentions three initial steps: repentance, faith, and baptism (Acts 2:38). But there was also in addition to baptism, even in apostolic time, the laying on of hands with prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15-17). By at least the second century this was accompanied by an anointing with oil. Oil was no doubt used together with the laying on of hands because it signified becoming a sharer in the anointing of Jesus through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the course of time this came to be called the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the oil used was called “chrism”. To this anointing there was later added a pre-baptismal anointing to prepare catechumens for baptism. This oil came to be called the “oil of catechumens”. A third oil mentioned in the letter of James (5:14) is the “oil of the sick”. Until at least the 9th century lay people as well as clergy could use oil in praying for the sick. The first oil, chrism, is also used in baptism, when for some reason, confirmation does not follow immediately, and it is used as well in the ordination of bishops and priests.
These three oils are blessed each year by the bishop during holy week. Together they signify in various ways our full sharing in the anointing of Jesus. By using all these oils we give outward expression to our faith in Jesus as God’s anointed, and thereby share more deeply in his anointing.
In using sacramentals, as lay people we should not confuse this oil with the Church’s holy oil that is conferred only by a priest in the Anointing of the Sick.
Besides the three oils which the church now reserves for use in the sacraments, the Church also recognizes the use of blessed oil for use by all Christians. The purpose of this oil is primarily for healing and protection from harm; but the oil can also be used to pray for all the blessings which the oil represents; that is, all the riches which are ours in Jesus. The oil can be used in praying for oneself or in praying for others. The simplest way of anointing is to make the sign of the cross on the forehead while saying the accompanying prayers. (see Ez. 9:3; Rev. 7:3) But other parts of the body can also be anointed especially when the need for healing may be localized in one or several parts of the body.
If using on another, it is advisable to inform them that you are using blessed oil, which is not the sacred oils of the Church, and are not administering a Sacrament of the church. [Anointing of the Sick is strictly reserved for the ministry of the ordained Catholic priest.]