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Why African bishops are warning about misuse of holy oils

Archbishop Ambongo (CNS)

Africa has a lucrative market in holy oils - and bishops are worried.

Bishops across Africa are warning priests not to misuse holy oils.

They are concerned that practices associated with the revival churches are being imported into Catholicism.

In a 2014 article in the missionary journal Spiritus, Fr Damien Etshindo, of Kole Diocese in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explained that revival churches are known for exploiting practices associated with traditional African religions, such as singing, dancing and trances, as well as anointing the body with special oils to ward off evil spirits.

According to Fr Daniel Maneka of St Irenaeus parish, some revival church pastors in the capital, Kinshasa, buy olive oil at the market, “bless it” and sell it at a profit to their followers. The oil is used in different ways. It may be smeared on the belly of a woman seeking to bear a child, used to anoint the sick or to exorcise youngsters suspected of being “sorcerers”.

The selling of sacred oils has become a big business in Africa, so much so that in Zambia and South Africa the government has had to intervene.

Presiding over the Chrism Mass last month, Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, said he was worried about Catholics procuring holy oils for the sick from other churches.

He urged the faithful not to sway from their Catholic faith.

Also at a Chrism Mass, Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo of Kinshasa warned more than a hundred priests working in his archdiocese against “abusive use of the holy oils”, urging them to follow official guidelines without adding anything to what the Church recommends.

In their efforts to stop the exodus of the faithful and win back the lost, some Catholic priests, deacons and lay ministers, especially in southern Africa, have held healing services during which the faithful are anointed with a so-called “oil of gladness” that is claimed to be sacramental.

In 2008, the Congregation for Divine Worship cautioned against such services. In a letter to the South Africa Bishops’ Conference, the Congregation recalled that there were only three blessed oils used in Catholic ritual: the oil of catechumens, the oil of the sick, and the Sacred Chrism.

It added that canon law expressly forbids anyone other than a priest or bishop to administer the anointing of the sick.