Liturgical Puzzlement: Why Do Some Parishes Display the Holy Oils in Glass Containers and Cabinets?

In some older churches there is a discrete box in the sanctuary or the baptistery called the ambry or the Olea Sancta. Traditionally the Blessed Holy Oils (Chrism, Oil of the Sick, and Oil of the Catechumens) were stored in metal containers inside this locked and opaque box. In churches where these did not exist, the oils were stored in the sacristy either in a special box, or in the safe.

But recently, the practice has set up of many parishes visibly displaying the Holy Oils in glass containers, stored within wooden boxes and behind glass doors. (See photo at right). The glass is often a fancy cut or etched glass, and mirrors sometimes exist inside to create a look of reflected light. I have even seen a few with lights.

Of itself, I see no serious harm, and I suppose it is good to store the blessed oils in a dignified way. Some of the ambry boxes are rather classy, though perhaps a bit ostentatious. I am also unaware of any specific norms on the storage of the oils in the church, though perhaps you will correct me on this.

But the use of glass is both puzzling and problematic for me. Glass presents two practical problems and one theological pondering:

  1. Glass can break. Now supposing one of the glass vessels falls, the usual result is that the entire contents of the blessed oil are lost, and the results are hard to clean. Broken glass mixed in with holy oils is a bad combination. The usual requirement of sacred vessels is that they be dignified, and not easily broken. For this reason, pottery and glass chalices have been excluded for years. The traditional metal vessels in which holy oils have been stored can be dropped, and though some of the contents may be spilled, usually not all is. And there is surely no glass mixed in the oil to cause difficulty in the clean up.
  2. Security is compromised. The glass cabinets, often used in this approach, are easily broken into. While it seems unlikely that the oils themselves would be desirable to thieves, some of the ornate cut glass and crystal  containers might be a target. Further, there are some who break into churches not to steal, but to vandalize. Glass cabinets with glass vials of oil can be a target for vandals (often youth) who enjoy smashing things.
  3. Why do we need to “see” the oils? Here is my theological pondering. There is a long tradition of Eucharistic adoration, wherein “seeing” is an essential component. But of course, the Blessed Sacrament is the abiding presence of the Lord, and to “see” the sacred species is to see the Lord. But stored Holy Oils, though blessed, are not the Lord and they are not the Sacraments per se. The Sacrament is the sacred action of the proper celebrant making use of matter and form. So the Holy Oils are the matter of the sacrament, but they are not the Sacrament (Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Ordination) itself. Theologically, I wonder what we are saying in displaying the oils in glass, to be seen? And, is what we are saying correct, theologically? Further is it a practice that prudent and comprehensible in terms of Sacramental Theology.

I am asking these as real questions. I am not being merely rhetorical and I am interested in your thoughts. I am also interested in some of the practices you observe in your parishes. Further what does the practice of displaying the oils “to be seen” mean to you? How do you understand the purpose of this, if it is done in your parish?

Two final disclaimers. I do not question the use of an ambry or an olea sancta in a Church, even when it is prominently present. There does seem to be historical precedent for the storage of the Holy Oils in the main body of the Church, even in the Sanctuary, near the altar. But it is the current practice of displaying the oils in glass receptacles and boxes, with the intent that the oils themselves be seen, that I puzzle over.

The second disclaimer is that I am not proposing that this is a terrible abuse that must be stamped out. I am however, not without the concerns that I have already stated. But in the big scheme of things, I am not losing sleep over this. I am just puzzled and wondering if perhaps greater thought should be given to this practice.

I am grateful for your responses.

This video talks a bit about the Chrism Mass and, about half way through, also shows the rather wide variety of vessels that parishes present to store the Holy Oils, some metal, some glass or crystal.

50 Replies to “Liturgical Puzzlement: Why Do Some Parishes Display the Holy Oils in Glass Containers and Cabinets?”

  1. Glass containers for the Chrism makes the Chrism look like decoration in God’s House. It seems good at first, but than, it takes away the mystery and steals attention from the Holy Sacrament.

  2. Personally, I like it as it. Having the Holy Oils on display is a continued, visible reminder of the parish’s link with her bishop.

  3. This has been going on a bit longer in my part of the country. In my parish the holy oils were originally kept, as you say, out of view. Then at a certain point they were brought out and displayed in glass, but still in the sanctuary. Eventually (if I remember correctly after a change or two in pastors) they were brought out into the nave, again in glass containers in a glass case (our church was small, with not a lot of space beyond the small sanctuary).

    Unfortunately I’m too tired right now to really remember what the reasoning is but to the best of my memory and of the top of my head, I believe some of it has to do with drawing the connection between the sacraments of initiation, so in our parish when the oils were brought out they were placed next to the baptismal font. I believe that’s how it is in some other parishes (but not all, in one old church I know that still has a baptistery in the back the oils are displayed in the sanctuary). I suppose they have to be in glass to make sure people see them and somehow “get” the connection.

    I vaguely recall something about this being written in our diocesan newspaper, and since around the time they were put on display in our church there seemed to be a push to do these sorts of things under our bishop at that time. Our parish was actually behind other parishes in doing these sorts of things (we had an older, traditional monsignor for a long time, this stuff didn’t happen at our parish until after he retired).

    I think worship and liturgy, like nature, abhors a vacuum and the minute some things are abandoned or neglected something else comes along and takes its place. I have a feeling “displaying the holy oils in glass” is one of those things.

  4. The best reason I can think of to display the oils is catechesis – reminding the faithful that the oils are there and when they are to be used.

    1. Well said, Jay. In our large church, the oils are displayed in plain glass cruets in a plain wood and glass box – very dignified. The box is on a broad ledge near the baptismal font. The font and the oils are to the right of the altar, an unlighted area during Mass but for all a clearly-seen reminder of being sealed with the Holy Spirit.

  5. At first, when I glanced over this, my initial reaction was one of exasperation. Upon further consideration, I suppose this is merely a point of some discussion about a relatively inconsequential topic in the Church, much along the lines of the query once heard in the checkout line at any grocery store – “paper, or plastic?”

    Considering, I ponder iconography – one thing stands for another, insofar as it symbolizes or represents something to us because of how it is used, or what it has done – that is to say, its history.

    But to “cut to the chase,” and answer your concern, which is “wondering if perhaps greater thought should be given to this practice.”


    No greater thought should be given to this practice.

  6. From where I come from, it has always been my understanding that one is supposed to genuflect to the oils because they are consecrated.

    I don’t know the distinction between oils from the Ordinary Form and oils from the Extraordinary Form. I am inclined to say that the mystical weight (if I can use that term) is greater in nearly every category in the Extraordinary Form; and so, genuflection might not be neccessary for Ordinary Form oils.

    Eitherway they belong in a dignified box and in precious metal and/or precious/polkished stone (not clay or cermaic) vessels. Glass is a no-no in normal circumstance unless of course one wants to undermine the Theology behind the Blessed Mother and the Incarnation. And, as we know if a breakable vessel is used, it must be properly destroyed after the rite.

    All this begs the question: Whatever happened to the tabernacle for the Book of the Gospels?

    1. (Sigh)

      There is only ONE Mass, Jim. One. And whichever form one might celebrate, or whichever rite, neither is “better” or “greater” than the other. The fullness of sacramental grace is imparted regardless of the form in which the oil is or in which it was consecrated. The Holy Spirit is not lesser in the one case and greater in the other.

      1. I remember a parishioner once asked me how the old rite of baptism was different or better than the new one, he was considering having his child baptized in the old. I explained that there were more exorcisms and blessings. Then he unwittingly asked the fundamental question: “At the end of the process is the baby more baptized in the old rite?” To which I replied, “No.” “OK,” he said, “Then I think if the final result is the same I’ll take the new.” In the end, the older rite can be chosen by a family for it’s beauty, richness, etc. but baptism is conferred in either rite and no lesser aspect of the rite (e.g. an exorcism, or a blessing of water) can somehow cause the child to be more or less baptized.

      2. Friend,

        Yes. The holy Spirit is never lesser for He cannot increase or decrease. God is immutable. It is a matter of men.

        The rite is one in the same. What the prayers beseech is vastly different. Whilst one achieves a minimum neccessary end, the other go above an beyond. This is plainly seen in the famous case of the Sacrament of Baptism, where one form contains an exorcism and a churching of the mother and the other does not contain either of these. This plainly seen in the revised book of blessings which contains (from what I have come to understand ) only three blessings, one of which is the blessing before meals (which I might add also contains a Pater Noster and an Angelic Salutation).

        Among priests and theologians (and particular exorcists such as Fr. Chad Ripperger of Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, one will find there little debate on this point. There is such thing more prayers that more spiritually efficacious than another just as there are sacramentals that are more heavily indulgenced than another. One cannot compare a consecrated St. Benedict medal and Crucifx to a plain wooden cross that is merely blessed. Or, perhaps a Rosary prayed over by a Domincan or a Croiser Canon becomes indulgenced whereas a regular parish priest gives it a simply blessing. The prayer of an antistite (bishop) is greater still. The devil fears the former more than the later just as the devil champions a curse word lobbed at one’s own mother more than a finger flipped in traffic.

        Of course, when using the chrisms, the Sacraments are confected in accordance with the intention of Holy Mother Church. This is first and foremost because they connected to the Eucharist. It is in He from whom all life is spirated. This is never a debate. What I had brought to the table was a mere question put to the good monsignor who runs this wonderful blog for the good diocese. I do not doubt the same happens, only it happens in a more mystically muted fashion. I am willing to wager that there is a difference in the form of the prayers used by the one given authority (ordinarily an antistite bishop or an auxiliary, abbot, or in certain circumstances a parish priest) in the revised rite when compared to the ancient rite. I have it on great authority that the consecration of a chalice in the ancient rite is far more laudable than the revised rite.

        I could on like this for days, but in mercy I will not. And so, my question is restated. Is there an mystical difference between the ancient and revised rites in terms of the ‘holiness’ of the effected chrisms. I base this question on the truth that the potential power of a Sacrament is dependent upon the holiness of His Holiness the Roman Pontiff, the Ordinary Authority of a Territory, and the disposition of the individual priest confecting the Sacramen, and lastly the faith and devotion, the predisposition of the reciever.

        1. It sounds like you are espousing a Donatist position? For they held that power of the sacrament depended on the holiness of the priest. A position which the Church rejected.

  7. Pure oils of all sorts–cooking oils as well as holy oils–should be stored away from light. Oil oxidizes and breaks down in the presence of light and heat. Stabilizers are added to commercial oils to keep this from happening.

    1. This is especially a concern with oils that will be stored for a year or more.

      By the way, very few parishes use up their stores of holy oils… what happens to the old chrism when the new chrism is obtained?

      1. We’re suppose to empty out the old oils and burn it or bury it in a reverent spot. But frankly, with a lot of parishes displaying large amounts in Crystal Vessels some accumulate the oil by just adding the new.

        1. Since it is possible for olive oil to go rancid it seems like a bad idea to accumulate it for years!

  8. It may one the one hand increase appreciation of the sacrament and remind the ones who have received it of its importance, but on the other hand it introduces the danger that the chrism may be seen as some sort of magic sacrament confecting potion…

  9. The holy oils are displayed in wall nooks in my parish, near the baptistry, to the left of the altar. Our church (I refuse to use the term “worship space”) was constructed in 1986 and one can identify any 1980’s parish in our Diocese, the same architect is obvious, they’re all fan shaped, they all have a baptistry to the left ot the altar and they all display the holy oils in the wall. There are 5 such parishes I can think of off hand. Frankly, because of the prevalence of the display, I thought display was the norm.

    1. Our parish church is vintage 1982 and is exactly what Peter describes. Our oil display arrangement has underlit unprotected shelves on the wall, making the glass containers for the Holy Oils look like art, and the heat may cause problems for the oils. I assumed that the practice of prominent display was part catechesis and part a sign of love and respect for even the matter of the Sacraments. We also have sacramentals displayed like the rosary on Our Lady’s hands. A statue of her under the title of Fatima is prominently displayed on the right side of our Alter. Thankfully, the Tabernacle is the focal point in the middle!

      1. Ahhh, Laura! I forgot the underlit glass support shelves, we must go to the same parish! Do you have a honkey tonk piano in lieu of organ?

  10. A while ago, I purchased some holy oils from the Holy Land to support the Christians there. They are in glass vials in a box with a clear plastic outer covering, so they can be seen. I display them prominently to witness to my belief that blessed objects have positive effects and spiritual value. If I hid the vials away, the blessed oils and their positive effects would still be there, but I would lose that “witness” effect and also lose the reminder to myself of the presence and effects of these objects. In effect, I would be hiding a lamp under my bed instead of placing it on a lamp stand. I suggest that the principle could be the same for displaying the holy oils in Churches.

  11. When I was in seminary, a young monk complained about the abbot’s policy that monks would not be allowed to wear their habits in public. “The abbot says that people don’t know what a habit is, so it confuses them. If we wear it in public, though, they will come to learn what it is!” I suppose this is similar. It’s not about adoration of oils or anything, it’s about making our Catholic things, aspects of our Catholic identity, more visible and also making teachable moments.

  12. In our parish, the oils are stored in a recessed glass chamber that is part of the wall near the door of the sanctuary, where the baptismal font is also located. The recessed nature of the chamber eliminates the concern about them falling out of it and breaking. I always thought of them as similar to stained glass windows and icons, there as reminders of what they symbolize and their usage.

  13. At my parish, Liverpool cathedral, the principal Catholic church in the north of England, the Holy Oils are stored, bizarrely, beneath an altar dedicated to the English Martyrs, as this photo shows:

    I wonder if this offers a clue as to why the oils are put on display, that perhaps they are meant to supplant the place of relics in Catholic piety – although that, in my opinion, is like comparing apples with oranges.

  14. Sorry, this is the correct link for the photo of the “Chapel of the Holy Oils” at Liverpool cathedral:

    The original dedication, St George and the English Martyrs, is still inscribed on the wall adjacent to the entrance of the chapel. The cathedral/archdiocese possesses major certified relics of the English martyrs, but they are never exposed for public veneration.

  15. I actually really like this practice because of what St. Cyril of Jerusalem says concerning the oil of Chrismation, “Take care not to imagine that this muron is anything ordinary. In the same way as the bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is no more ordinary bread, but the Body of Christ, so the holy muron is no longer ordinary, or, if you prefer the word, common, after the epiclesis, but the charism of Christ, made efficacious of the Holy Spirit by the presence of His divinity” (PG XXXIII, 1092 A, See Jean Danielou, The Bible in the LiturgyM, pg. 122).

    So this oil has been consecrated, and it is made effective and Holy by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  16. Sadly, in one of the Parishes close to me, the Tabernacle is not in the Sanctuary, but the holy oils are…it’s a bit confusing

  17. At my parish, there are two side altars (not uncommon in older churches) that survived the postconciliar massacre, and the oils are kept in what used to be the St. Mary altar’s tabernacle, retrofitted with a glass door.

  18. I appreciate the visual reminder of the unity of the Sacraments, for what that’s worth. But they’re pushing it with the signs that say, “In case of tongues of fire, break glass.”

  19. I tried to read through the entire Catechism once, but I only made it half way before classes began again. While I was reading, however, I stumbled across this passage. “The sacred chrism (myron), used in anointings as the sacramental sign of the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, is traditionally reserved and venerated in a secure place in the sanctuary. The oil of catechumens and the oil of the sick may also be placed there” (CCC 1183). Since then, I’ve made it a practice to worship the Holy Spirit through the chrism if I see it on display at a Church.

    In regards to this blog post, it seems there’s naturally some tension between setting the oils out to be venerated and making sure that they are secure. A fragile glass does not provide much security, but makes veneration possible. Maybe a good compromise would be putting the oils in metal containers, which could be on display in a glass case.

  20. I think that Jay and Micah make a good point: It is a catechetical, teachable moment. Growing up Catholic, I had absolutely no idea that there were three different types of oils and what they were used for.

    What makes me wonder with these displays, though, is the sheer quantity of sacred oil. My impression was that each parish only got a tiny bit of the oil that is consecrated at the annual Chrism Mass (since it has to be divided amongst all the parishes of the diocese and because a little goes a long way). But perhaps each parish gets more than I imagined.

    Jim, I am interested in why you think the “mystical weight” would be different between OF and EF consecrated oils? Sacred chrism is sacred chrism. I don’t think it matters much which rite is used to consecrate the oils.

  21. In our parish, the ambry rests on a small table against the baptismal font which is in the center of the main aisle at the back of the nave. The architectural/sacramental point seems to be that one enters the Church only by way of baptism, & only approaches the alter after being anointed with chrism. It seems to be a way to connect the three sacraments of initiation. More practically, we have a lot of baptisms, so it’s quite convnient for the priest to have to oils handy. Nevertheless, I share Monsignor’s concern about safety & security & propriety.

  22. The use of holy, healing oil is older than the Eucharist, being rooted in the Old Testament. I see no reasonable objection to their display. They can remind all of basic Catholic theology: The goodness and salvific importance of created matter. Don’t be so grumpy, Charlie.

  23. The problem for me is the lack of integration of the oils into the worship space. Often, it looks like there is a curio cabinet made of wood and glass in a building of brick, metal, and stone. If there is a way to do it that lends our eyes upward, rather than distracting us and leaving us wondering what is that lighted box (or worse, a set of shelves like in my parish) on the wall, then i think its a great thing to be included in the sanctuary or by the baptismal font.

    1. In our parish the holy oils are stored in a golden dove shaped vessel attached to the top of the tabernacle behind the altar and together with the Book of the Gospels. I’ve noticed in some European churches (France and Germany) the sacred chrism is kept in a special aumbry built into the north side of the altar itself, or from a hanging pyx over the baptismal font.

  24. Monsignor, I enjoy your pondering. My church has had chrism oils displayed in glass since before I converted in 2000, so I never realized that it might be unusual. But I have to say that in my part of Indiana, we don’t lock our church–ever. If I want to go at 3am, the doors are open, and this isn’t part of a perpetual adoration chapel. It is just the way it has been done. I know this is unusual even for other rural churches. However, we have been blessed not to suffer any problems so far. It reminds me why I enjoy living in this part of the country, and what a blessing that safety is.

  25. Addressing the three concerns:

    Glass material:

    One of THE scariest moments in my life was riding the Steel Phantom Roller Coaster. EQUAL to that is the day I was a carrier for the Sacred Oils. In high school, the Cathedral asked some of the high school boys to carry them, since the gentlemen who had done it for 25 years were entering their venerable years.

    As I descended the marble stairs, carrying the newly consecrated oil to take it to the religious who distributed it into containers for the priests: disaster struck. The new and rather square heel of my dress shoe caught the edge of the stair vaulting me forward. These Glass carriers contained, perhaps, 25 gallons of Holy Oils (much larger than their silver metal counterparts (6 glass, 3 silver were used) and required two men of football lineman size to carry. By God’s grace I landed perfectly onto the sanctuary floor after enitrely missing the next step with my other foot and we continued as if nothing happened.

    So, dangerous? Yes. In small form: Still yes, but much less so.

    Security: I think security has been compromised since porters (and usher versions of them) have been removed from the church vestibules. A church in my diocese was vandalize and the entire golden tabernacle was stolen. THE WHOLE THING taken right off the marble. People will do what they want, most unfortunately. Porters would help, though. The tabernacle was actually found thrown down a hill side, later that week.

    Regarding the security, I think that it is no less secure in a metal box. Vandals can often appreciate the challenge as much as the ease of smashing (as per the “FSU” activities of many high schoolers).

    As for the Being able to see them: My initial reaction is that it must be catechetical in reasoning. But, as for being able to actually SEE the oils…. perhaps a glass Ambrey with silver cruets for the oil, it self, would be best, so that the mystery was persevered, but devotional sight maintained.

    Thanks for the insights!

  26. As a general rule most of the comments here both like and understand the display of the oils. Generally it would seem that the practice is seen as a reverence for the sacraments and a helpful reminder of them.

  27. At a church i recently attended, the confessionals had been removed years ago. One is now used for displaying statuary and candles. The other contains – a small, wooden, open shelf holding the holy oils in glass cruets!

  28. @Cynthia BC: I’ve always heard “cruet” as referring to salad dressings from the 1930s and earlier, i.e. vinegar and oil. I’ve no objection to cruet applying to Sacred Chrisms, but cruet itself seems to be a non-liturgical noun.

    1. Yes, “cruet” immediately brought salad dressing to my mind. That’s why I was hoping that the Official Name was something else…

    2. Cruet is the precise term for the vessels of wine and water, as mentioned, that are used in Mass, whether they be glass, pewter, silver, or gold. In reference to the flasked oil that is usually sent to the Parishes.

      I believe a technical term is Ampulla or Chismarium. Ampulla is the term for the ungenarium (ungent container) in the English Crown… which now has a foul smell, instead of its pleasant smell (as a perfume/ungent ought have) since the turning of England from communion with Rome. But that’s a different story.

  29. It is just cool to have it displayed. We have holy oil. It is so Catholic, like the crucifix behind the altar and Icons and statues. It also provides a great teaching moment.

  30. It has been an ancient tradition in the Church that the holy oils used for the celebration of the sacraments are reserved in a special place. Go to any old sacristy and you will see a box embedded into a wall; it will be marked “Ambry.:

    I was giving a tour of the church to new lectors in our parish when we passed the old ambry in the sacristy, one of the lectors ask, “Father, what is this for?” “It’s where the holy oils were once kept,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, just like the one we have near the baptismal font.”

    Perhaps, in the old way, very few knew where the holy oils were kept. In the new way, hopefully, everyone knows where the holy oils are now kept.

    BTW, the practice of reserving the holy oils probably predates our practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in tabernacles.

    (After the training with the lectors, curious, I looked for the key to the ambry. I found it in the safe where the sacred vessels are kept. I opened the ambry, and lo and behold, the oil stocks were still there properly marked SC, OC, OI. They probably have been there since 1967 when the church was built. The stocks have now a fresh supply of holy oils).

    1. Yeah, I have an ambry, and we have always used it. But the practice of displaying the oils in glass just seems a little odd to me. It’s not like the Blessed Sacrament which has the presence in itself and is the Blessed Sacrament. The oils are not the sacrament, the Sacrament is the Sacrament. If we do this with oils, why not have a big glass jug of holy water in a crystal vase? I dunno, I just think its strange thats all, the glass, that is. What is there about seeing the oil?

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