Storage of the Holy Oils

And More on a Deacon’s Position

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ROME, OCT. 4, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Can an altar be used to house and display the vessels containing the holy oils blessed during the Chrism Mass, i.e., in the same fashion as a reliquary is sometimes housed behind a metal grille within an altar (like those of St. Pius X and Blessed John XXIII in the Vatican basilica)? — J.T., Clifton, England

A: Official norms regarding the storage of the holy oils are somewhat scant. The Rite of the Blessing of Oils and Consecrating the Chrism 27-28 indicates that in the sacristy after the Chrism Mass the bishop may instruct the presbyters about the reverent use and safe custody of the holy oils.

There is a growing practice in the Church of visibly displaying the holy oils. These are usually stored, locked, in a niche in the sanctuary wall called an ambry or aumbry.

Apart from the presbytery the ambry is often located near the baptismal font and this is most appropriate in churches with a distinct baptistery. The ambry may also sometimes be placed within the sacristy.

The oils are usually kept in silver or pewter vessels, albeit these often have glass interiors for the sake of practicality. Each vessel should also have some inscription indicating the contents such as CHR (Chrism), CAT (Catechumens) or O.I. («oleum infirmorum»).

The visible display of the holy oils, by means of a grille of a transparent door, does not seem to present a particular problem and in some cases serves to avoid exchanging an ambry for a tabernacle. If the door is opaque it should usually have an indication either near or upon it saying «Holy oils.»

The use of an altar as an ambry in the manner described in your question would detract from the centrality of the altar. I do not consider it appropriate.

There is also no precedent for such a practice in the tradition of the Church as she has usually only placed the relics of the saints beneath the altar.

It might be acceptable, however, to locate an ambry above an old side altar no longer used for celebrating the Eucharist. But placing it below would likely lead to having the oils confused with relics.

Stretching the issue, one could even adduce a certain historical precedent in the fact that, in some ancient churches, when the tabernacle was almost universally transferred to the high altar after the 16th century, the former wall tabernacle was used to store the holy oils.

Apart from the holy oils stored in the ambry, priests may also keep smaller stocks on hand of the oil for anointing the sick.

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Follow-up: Deacon’s Position at Consecration

Several readers requested further clarifications on the role of the deacon during Mass (see Sept. 20).

Some questions regarded the respective roles of the deacon of the book and of the altar. A Tallahassee, Florida, reader asks:

«There is some confusion as to who does the speaking parts when there are two deacons on the altar.

«One school of thought is that the deacon of the Word only ministers during the Liturgy of the Word and does not speak the responses during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The deacon of the altar ministers at the altar and does the responses during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

«The second school of thought is that the deacon of the Word should do all spoken responses during the Mass and the deacon of the altar only assists at the altar with no spoken parts. Is there a clear definition as to the appropriate procedure?»

Related to this was a question regarding what parts the deacon should say. For example, a correspondent from Stockholm, Sweden, asks if the deacon, rather than the priest, could say the invitation «Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.»

The general norms do not go into detail regarding the diverse roles of two deacons although this possibility exists in the Ceremonial of Bishops and is quite common on special solemn occasions or for concelebrated Masses.

The most common custom is that one deacon usually reads the Gospel, the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful, the invitation to make the sign of peace, and other interventions such as «The Mass is ended …»

The other deacon attends to all that has to do with the altar and recites the private prayers used for the preparation of the chalice.

There are no other prayers or responses proper to the deacon during the Eucharistic Prayer. The responses to the prayers of offertory: «Blessed be God for ever,» are either said by all or omitted entirely. The invitation «Let us proclaim the mystery of faith» is always said or sung by the priest; only the priest, or priest concelebrants, proclaim the doxology while the deacon silently elevates the chalice.

This is the usual division of roles, but it is not set in stone. On occasion, some mixing may take place, for example, if the deacon of the Gospel is bereft of musical talent, the other deacon could substitute him in singing the invitation to the sign of peace or the dismissal.

A priest asks how many deacons should be on the altar and what is the proper attire of deacons who do not have a particular function during a Mass.

In most cases, one or two deacons are sufficient. On occasion of the diocesan bishop’s «Stational Mass,» No. 122 of the Ceremonial of Bishops gives preference to at least three deacons: «one to proclaim the gospel reading and minister at the altar, two to assist the bishop. If there are more than three deacons present, they should divide the ministries accordingly, and at least one of them should be charged with assisting the active participation of the faithful.»

In some places, such as seminaries and religious houses with numerous deacons, a custom exists whereby all of the deacons participate in the community Mass dressed in alb and stole.

In such cases the deacons have a role similar to that of clergy in choir in a solemn Mass and they are not, strictly speaking, exercising their ministry at this moment.

For this reason, if they form part of the entrance procession they follow the processional cross but go before the deacon of the Gospel who separates them from any concelebrants. They may have a reserved place in the front pews or in the choir, if there is one, but should be clearly distinguished from concelebrating priests.

At Communion the officiating deacons, and if necessary any others administering Communion, receive from the main celebrant. Any other deacons present in alb and stole may approach the altar to receive from the chalice but only after the concelebrants have partaken.

It is usually feasible to organize things so that the last concelebrants to take Communion administer the Eucharist under both species to these deacons. An alternative method is that once the principal celebrant has administered to the officiating deacons he goes to the front of the altar, or of the sanctuary, and administers Communion to the non-officiating deacons immediately before distributing to the faithful.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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