The sacramental species never, ever go into the main sewer system
Did you know your parish church has a fish pond?
Actually, it probably looks more like a sink and may even have a locking cover. Oh, and its pipes go into the ground, not into the local sewer system.
What is now called a sacrarium was once known as a piscina — from the Latin word for a reservoir for fish. In fact, some Christians still call it a piscina because that word technically refers to the basin of the sink itself, while “sacrarium” refers to the drain.
The sacrarium is now usually found in a church’s sacristy, the room where sacred vessels and vestments are kept. However, in previous days, the sacrarium could be found near the altar, or attached to the altar itself. Sometimes it was simply a removable basin, so that the water in it could later be poured out on the ground.
The sacrarium is meant to be used for washing — especially of the sacred vessels and altar clothes, as well as to receive the water that has been used for ablutions (washing of hands). It is for water — not for anything else.
So, when the sacred wine, the blood of Christ, is spilled and blotted up with a cloth, that cloth is first rinsed in the sacrarium. Only after that can it be washed in a regular manner.
The sacrarium can also be used to dispose of holy water. However, it is never used to dispose of consecrated wine, the blood of Christ. That wine must be consumed entirely and the vessels — both the chalice and anything holding the sacred host — purified (rinsed with water that is also consumed by the priest or deacon). Only after such purification may the sacred vessels be cleansed (different from purified) in water and mild detergent.
Remember it’s about water and not what was once wine. It is against church law (canon 1367) to pour the blood of Christ down a sink of any sort. In fact, if someone does this — knowing that it is against church law — they are automatically excommunicated. Only the Vatican courts can lift such an excommunication. A priest who knowingly pours out the sacred wine may even be laicized for the offense. (Remember, someone who does this accidentally or unknowingly is not automatically excommunicated.)
Since it’s about water, someone may ask, “Why the lock?”
Well, there are some rare instances where a sacred host may become so defiled that it cannot be consumed — normally a host that is dropped or broken is still to be consumed by someone. It is not ever thrown away. It is, after all, Christ’s body. But if a consecrated host cannot be consumed, it may be thoroughly dissolved in the sacrarium. Since this takes time, the sacrarium’s drain may have a cover and a lock, so that the dissolving host is not disturbed. Once that host is dissolved, it is believed that the sacred presence of Christ is gone. Only then can the water be drained down the sacrarium’s pipe into the ground.
But why the connection to fish or a fish pond? Well, it’s mostly because of the Latin word — piscina, from which we get the astrological word “Pisces” — for such a basin, not really because of any sacred language connections.
However, the fish is also a Eucharistic symbol in our church and a reminder of many of Christ’s miracles — like the multiplications of loaves and fish.
Also, there is the abbreviation — more properly called a rebus, since it uses the first letters of a phrase to form a word — that we know as “the fish.” In Greek letters, “fish” is ICHTHYS, which is also an anagram for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Using the Greek words Iesous Christos, Theou Hyios, Soter and only listing their first letters — gives us ICQUS or ICHTHYS in our alphabet.
This monogram — and the fish symbol itself — is among the earliest emblems used for Christ. It can be found in Roman catacombs dating back to the third century. Tradition says that, during the persecutions of Christians under the Roman emperors, the fish became a secret sign by which Christians identified themselves to each other. So calling a sacrarium a fish pond (piscina) is just another little reminder of the presence of Christ.
Sources: Etymonline.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholicculture.com; The Catholic Herald UK; zenit.com; catholicliturgy.com; Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (Father Z’s blog at wdtprs.com; USCCB’s Committee for Divine Worship; and the 1983 Code of Canon Law)