Why Are Catholics Anointed With Chrism at Confirmation?

A lesson inspired by the Baltimore catechism

Containers of chrism.
Containers of chrism for baptism. Pascal Deloche/Getty Images

As part of the Sacrament of Confirmation, Catholics are anointed with a type of oil known as chrism. What is chrism, why is it used in Confirmation, and what does this anointing signify?

What Does the Baltimore Catechism Say?

Question 171 of the Baltimore Catechism, found in Lesson Thirteenth of the First Communion Edition and Lesson Fifteenth of the Confirmation Edition, frames the question and answer this way:

Question: What is meant by anointing the forehead with chrism in the form of a cross?

Answer: By anointing the forehead with chrism in the form of a cross is meant, that the Christian who is confirmed must openly profess and practice his faith, never be ashamed of it, and rather die than deny it.

What Is Chrism?

Chrism, as Fr. John A. Hardon notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, is "A consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam." Balsam, a type of resin, is very fragrant, and it is used in many perfumes. The oil and balsam mixture is blessed by the bishop of each diocese at a special Mass, called the Chrism Mass, on the morning of Holy Thursday. All priests of the diocese attend the Chrism Mass, and they bring vials of the chrism back to their churches for use in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. (Chrism is also used in the consecration of bishops, and in the blessing of various objects used in the Mass.)

Because chrism is blessed by the bishop, its use is a sign of the spiritual connection between the faithful and their bishop, the shepherd of souls who represents the unbroken connection between Christians today and the Apostles.

Why Is It Used in Confirmation?

The anointing of those who are called or chosen has a long and deep symbolism, going well back into the Old Testament.

Those who are anointed are set apart, cleansed, healed, and strengthened. They are also said to be "sealed," marked with the sign of the one in whose name they are anointed.

In the case of Confirmation, Christians receive the seal of the Holy Spirit. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares (para. 1294), they "share more completely in the mission of Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit with which he is filled, so that their lives may give off 'the aroma of Christ,'" which the scent of the balsam signifies.

What Does Anointing With Chrism Signify?

As the Baltimore Catechism notes, the symbolism goes even deeper, as the anointing takes the form of the Sign of the Cross, representing the indelible mark of Christ's sacrifice on the soul of the one being confirmed. Called by Christ to follow Him, Christians "preach Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23), not only through their words but through their actions.