What kind of oil can be used in the sacraments?

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holy oils
Vessels containing sacred chrism oil, the oil of the Sick and the oil of catechumens are displayed in the sanctuary of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, N.Y., during the annual chrism Mass. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

Question: I was recently told that something other than olive oil can be used for the sacred oils the Church uses in the sacraments. Is this so?

Janet Owen, via email

Answer: This is not accurate, as stated. Only in the case of a rare emergency in the anointing of the sick, when the usual oil stock of a priest is not at hand, is any other plant oil permissible. Olive oil is the oil to be used in almost every circumstance.

First, let us note that there are three oils in Catholic sacraments. The oil of catechumens and the sacred chrism (used in ordinations, baptisms and confirmation) must always be olive oil and are distinguished by the blessings prayed over them. The oil of chrism is also mixed with a fragrant balsam. Thirdly, there is the oil of the sick. It too must be olive oil, but there is an exception that might occur in an emergency anointing. In 1972, Pope Paul VI wrote the following in his apostolic constitution, Sacram Unctione Infirmorum (“Holy Anointing of the Sick”):

Further, since olive oil, which hitherto had been prescribed for the valid administration of the sacrament, is unobtainable or difficult to obtain in some parts of the world, we decree, at the request of numerous bishops, that in the future, according to the circumstances, oil of another sort could also be used, provided it were obtained from plants, inasmuch as this more closely resembles the matter indicated in Holy Scripture.

The pope also permitted priests to bless this oil in the case of an emergency call if he did not have his oil stock. But this oil could only be used for that emergency case and any remaining oil should be absorbed into cotton and burned (cf. Canon 999).

Note, then, that something other than olive oil (for example, vegetable oil), can only rarely be used, only in case of an emergency. And this is only true for the Sacrament of the Sick. There is no provision for anything other than olive oil in the case of the other two oils. Emergencies should be rare, so even in the anointing of the sick, olive oil should always be used, with only emergencies excepted.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.