Why Are Catholics Anointed With Chrism at Confirmation?

Chrism Oil Is Used in the Confirmation Sacrament for Catholics

Containers of chrism
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Confirmation is a formal rite or sacrament found in most branches of Christianity. Its purpose is for young members of the church to publicly declare (confirm) that they freely choose to adhere to the beliefs and practices of the church. For most Protestant denominations, confirmation is regarded as a symbolic rite, but for members of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, it is considered a sacrament—a rite believed to have been ordained by Jesus Christ in which God's grace is literally bestowed upon the participants.

In most branches of Christianity, confirmation occurs as a young person comes of age in their teenage years, and is therefore thought to be capable of freely professing their faith. 

Chrism Oil In Catholic Confirmation Sacrament

As part of the Sacrament of Confirmation, Catholics are anointed with a type of oil known as chrism. In the Eastern Orthodox church, in fact, confirmation is known as Chrismation. Also called myrrh, chrism oil is also used in some Anglican and Lutheran rites, although rarely for confirmation—it is more often used in baptism ceremonies. However,  some Lutheran branches in Nordic regions do use it in confirmation rites. 

In Catholic churches, the confirmation sacrament itself involves the priest anointing the foreheads of the participants, smearing the chrism oil in the form of crucifix cross. According to the Baltimore Catechism:

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. By some accounts, the earliest known documented account of chrism being used in official sacramental ceremonies dates back to St. Cyril in the late 4th century CE, but it is likely to have been used for centuries before that. 

In the case of Confirmation, Catholics are receiving the seal of the Holy Spirit as the priest anoints the forehead.  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.

As the Baltimore Catechism notes, the symbolism goes even deeper than the mere aroma, 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.