Of Albs and Oil

I know several young priests who loved to pretend saying Mass when they were growing up — so did Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — and one of the most common memories for them was how much of an impression the vestments of priests made not only on their imaginations but also their wider love of the Mass.

In this issue, Eddie O’Neill discusses the history and meaning of what priests wear at Mass (see Pages 6-8). Vestments are one of those immediate symbols that the faithful can see from the very start of Mass to its end. Important information is conveyed about the day and where we are in the Church’s calendar. And then there is the deeper meaning of the vestments themselves.

As we go to Mass and partake worthily of the Eucharist, we are witnessing attire that dates back to the earliest time in the Church, and each element has its own spiritual and theological meaning, from the alb to the stole to the chasuble. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal tells us, vestments should symbolize “the function proper to each minister” (No. 335).

But the priest does not wear a color to be fashionable. He dons a hue to announce the season and even the day. Think of the red vestments worn on feasts related to the Holy Spirit, martyrs and the blood of Our Lord. Or white, denoting the most joyous times in the life of the Church.

And one of the beautiful tasks performed by priests while wearing the stole is bringing the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to the suffering.

Therefore, also in this issue, Msgr. Bill King takes a look at the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and reminds us again of the importance of outward visible signs — in this case oil — pointing to something deeper (see Pages 22-24). We are all in need of healing, and the anointing of the sick, under-used and often under-appreciated, is one of the most powerful ways to find it. As Pope Benedict XVI taught in 2011 at a Chrism Mass: “The proclamation of God’s kingdom, of God’s unlimited goodness, must first of all bring healing to broken hearts … the first and fundamental healing takes place in our encounter with Christ.… But over and above this central task, the Church’s essential mission also includes the specific healing of sickness and suffering. The oil for anointing the sick is the visible sacramental expression of this mission.”

Be sure to read Elizabeth Scalia’s Ora Pro Nobis column this issue (see Page 38). She has a charming and poignant take on the sacrament.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Matthew Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com.