Curiosities of the Ancient Papal Mass: The Fistula

One of the distinctive characteristics -- to our modern eyes at least -- of the traditional papal liturgy was the use of a golden straw called the fistula (or also a reed, calamus, pipa, sacra pipa aurea or siphon) which was utilized by the pope for communing from the chalice.  Archdale King describes its use in his work, The Liturgy of the Roman Church:
Before the Pater noster, an acolyte takes the cruets and a small vessel to the credence; while the sacristan in a humeral veil carries the golden fistula in his right hand, and the chalice for the ablutions in his left. The cup-bearer then empties the cruets and purifies them together with the vessel, fistula and ablution chalice. The pregustatio ceremony is repeated as before, after which the acolyte goes to the right of the throne with the cruets and vessel: the sacristan with the fistula, chalice and two purificators.


The chalice is elevated by the cardinal deacon with the same ceremony as for the paten. Then the master of ceremonies covers the chalice with a gold-embroidered pall, and the deacon takes it to the throne. Two archbishops hold the book for the communion prayers; while a third assists with a hand-candle. The second master of ceremonies removes the asterisk, and the Pope, taking two particles of the Host in his left hand, says: Panem coelestem and Domine non sum dignus... The deacon approaches with the chalice, and the sacristan gives the fistula to the assistant bishop. Then the Pope places the futula in the chalice, and so receives the precious Blood. The Agnus Dei is concluded by the choir after the Pope has made his Communion.

The second half of the Host is given at the throne to the deacon and and subdeacon: the former stands and the latter kneels. They both kiss the ring and receive the pax. The ministers then return to the altar: the deacon carries the chalice and fistula and the subdeacon the paten. The paten is purified over the chalice by the subdeacon, and the deacon consumes a part of the precious Blood by means of the fistula. The remainder of the chalice is taken by the subdeacon, but without making use of the ‘reed’.
But why this ceremony? Was it some unique prerogative of the pope?

Far from it -- at least historically speaking.

In point of fact, the use of the fistula was a much more general practice that could be found throughout the Western Church up until about the 12th century (when communion under one kind was becoming normative) -- though the use of the fistula at the Abbey of St. Denis is documented up to 18th century. As was frequently the case however, the Papal Mass retained ancient liturgical practices that had fallen into disuse elsewhere and, as a result, what had at one time been a more general practice eventually came to be seen as a particularly papal one.

In terms of the "why," this practice no doubt came about out of reverence for the Eucharistic species and concern with spilling the Precious Blood when receiving it. The fistula would provide a much more secure and reverential means of distributing communion under this kind. It's interesting to note that there is parallel that might be seen here in Eastern churches and their custom of using a golden spoon to distribute Holy Communion (which, of course, is done under both kinds by intinction).


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