Fear not, Celiacs: The Eucharist is still for you, too

Catholic News Agency

Vatican City, Jul 11, 2017 / 03:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The norms regarding gluten and Communion hosts that went viral this weekend are nothing new in the Catholic Church.

On Saturday morning, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a circular letter to bishops reiterating existing norms regarding the matter of the Eucharist, including the norm that Communion hosts must contain some amount of gluten to be valid matter for consecration.

By Saturday night, the (misconstrued) news had spread like wildfire: “Catholic Church bans celiacs from Communion!” many media outlets declared. It was such a hot topic that Twitter declared it a “moment” in world news.

But these were existing norms – there was no change, no announcement of new norms, nor banning of celiacs from the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Gluten-free hosts have always been invalid matter for the sacrifice of the Mass, meaning that Catholics with celiac disease have already grappled with other options for Communion.

Usually, such “reminder” letters are issued when someone, generally a bishop, has raised a question or has been alerted of a possible abuse of the norm.

Still, the letter left lingering questions regarding people with celiac disease (or those with other serious allergies to wheat) and Communion. Here’s what the Church, and Catholics with celiac disease, have to say about going gluten free for Communion.

Why must a Communion host contain at least some gluten?

Wheat bread and wine of the grape are the matter of the sacrament of the Eucharist because Christ instituted the sacrament under these species. Moreover, Christ compared himself to a grain of wheat, and to the vine.

At some point along the line the question of gluten came arose, and whether the bread used for Holy Communion necessitated at least some gluten (and its accompanying protein gliadin) to be considered wheat bread that was valid matter for the sacrament.

A July 2003 circular letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, noting documents from the 1980s and ’90s, recalled that “Hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.”

It added that “Low-gluten hosts (partially gluten-free) are valid matter, provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread without the addition of foreign materials and without the use of procedures that would alter the nature of bread.”

And in 2004 the Congregation for Divine Worship wrote in its instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum that “The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition. It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament.”

That said, the Church recognizes that it mustn’t exclude from receiving Communion Catholics with celiac disease, and has made accommodation for those who are unable to consume normal bread.

Options celiacs have for Communion: Advice from a priest with celiac disease

A layperson affected by celiac disease who is unable to receive even a low-gluten host may receive Communion under the species of wine only.

A priest in a similar situation, when taking part in a concelebration, may with permission of the Ordinary receive Communion under the species of wine only. But such a priest may not celebrate the Eucharist individually, nor may he preside at a concelebration.

Father Joseph Faulkner, a priest of the diocese of Lincoln, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2008.

Already a priest, he had to receive special permission from his diocese to use low-gluten hosts in order to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Fr. Faulkner told CNA he was surprised that the letter regarding communion norms exploded so quickly on Twitter, but he saw it as a teachable moment.

The problem of gluten is especially pressing for priests, who must consume Communion under both species at a Mass which they celebrate individually.

For Father Faulkner, he has found that the best low-gluten hosts are made by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri. The sister’s website includes a page about proper storage and distribution of low-gluten hosts so as to avoid cross-contamination.

While the hosts are not low-gluten enough to be considered gluten free (which is understood to be less than 20 parts per million), they are low enough to be approved by the Celiac Support Association, which has some of the most stringent guidelines available on what celiacs can safely consume, Father said.

“I throw up if I eat bread, but I consume 8-9 large, low gluten hosts per week, and have done that for 9 years, and I don’t get sick from them,” he told CNA.

Father Faulkner said he recommended that any celiac wary of the low-gluten hosts obtain a few of them, unconsecrated, and try tiny particles to see if they are able to safely consume them.

For celiacs who are unable to receive these low-gluten hosts, Fr. Faulkner said “the safest and most certain thing a person could do would be to ask to receive (the Precious Blood) from a chalice other than the chalice that the priest uses.”

That’s because the chalice of wine that the priest uses contains the frumentum – the little bit of Host dropped in during the Angus Dei. To avoid any cross-contamination, a separate chalice is necessary.

“That’s the most certain way, and when you receive the Precious Blood, you receive Jesus’ body, blood, soul and divinity, so you don’t have to worry” about only receiving part of the sacrifice, he said.

For those who are able to receive the low gluten hosts, travelling with a sleeve of unconsecrated hosts can be a way to ensure that they can receive Communion in different parishes, Fr. Faulkner said.

“Just go up to the pastor and explain, ‘Hi, I’m a celiac, can I have one of these hosts consecrated on a separate paten?’” he said. “Because parishes want to be accommodating, but if they don’t have a celiac in their parish they’re probably not going to stock (low-gluten hosts) in their fridge.”

The lay Catholic experience: What it’s like finding gluten-free Communion

Michelle De Groot is a layperson with celiac disease in the Diocese of Arlington. She said that for a long time, she would approach priests in the sacristy before Mass to ask them to consecrate a separate chalice of wine, so that she could safely receive without cross-contamination.

“That was always kind of stressful because sometimes the priest would understand what I was talking about and sometimes not. And they didn’t always have a second chalice handy,” De Groot told CNA.

“So sometimes I’d just receive anyway from the cup with (the frumentum) and sometimes I’d make a spiritual communion instead,” she said. A spiritual communion is a uniting of oneself to the Sacrifice of the Mass through prayer, and can be made whether one is able to receive Communion or not.

Then, De Groot found out about the low-gluten altar breads made by the Benedictine Sisters. After doing her research, she decided to try these hosts, since they are approved as celiac-safe.

“I’ve never had any symptoms,” she said. De Groot says she also travels with her own supply of low-gluten hosts and a pyx (a small, round container for hosts) that allow her to receive Communion at parishes that may otherwise be unprepared.

She said while her celiac diagnosis was an emotional one for her at first, it has allowed her to establish relationships with priests and Eucharistic ministers at her parish and other churches she frequents.

“At my home (parish), it’s even not the end of the world if i’m running a few minutes late because they know me and my needs – whereas when I was first diagnosed, I had to get to church 15 minutes ahead to give time for the awkward explanations,” she said.

“If anything, celiac has been good for me in terms of my relationship to my parishes – I’m not an isolated stranger there, I’m known!”

Molly O’Connor is also a Catholic with celiac disease, who expressed similar frustrations with trying to make sure the Communion she received was both valid and safe. Having lived in six local Churches throughout the country, she said experiences varied widely from parish to parish.

“I typically just receive the cup at Communion, and I try both to sit in a part of the church where Communion is distributed by a priest so I may receive a blessing and near a cup that doesn’t have part of the host in it. If that sounds complicated, it is!” she said.

Travelling can be difficult, she said, as it can be hard to know whom to approach about receiving Communion. Parishes also often don’t announce whether they have low-gluten hosts, or how low-gluten they are, and not all parishes are conscious about cross-contamination, she said.

The U.S. Bishops issued a letter in 2012, updated in April 2016, regarding low-gluten and gluten-free communion options, as well as guidelines to avoid cross-contamination that can be found here.

O’Connor said the best situations have been when priests consecrate a separate chalice for her, and when parishes announce specifics about low-gluten or gluten-free options.

“As the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith, I think making Communion accessible to celiac and gluten-sensitive Catholics, in a manner consistent with Vatican and the U.S. Bishop’s norms, is paramount,” she said.

“How diminished is our faith life if we are unable to share in the paschal mystery with our fellow Catholics?”

COMING UP: Q&A: Cardinal Stafford: “The Eucharist has been the center of my life”

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On the dawn of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop emeritus of Denver, reflects on the origins and fruits of his vocation. He will celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m.

DC: What were your desires as a young man and how did God call you to the priesthood?            

Cardinal Stafford: Images of God arose very early in my life. From my parents’ encounter with Jesus in the confessional, concrete impressions developed into images. Those images spoke to me of God’s holiness and beauty. I understood that He was great and forgiving.

Reality became complex with more birthdays. The brutality of the 20th century… insinuated itself into my world-view. I was bewildered by the horror of that era… A few years later I also discovered St. Augustine’s joy in reflecting upon the beauty of the Creator of the world in his Confessions… I learned that the love of Christ transforms our unloveliness into God’s beauty.

Both the beauty of the Ancient One and the rub of evil have coexisted in my faith and experience. Jesus’s invitation, “The laborers are few”, resonated in my soul.  The fact that the priestly vocation is totally given over to the “ministry of reconciliation” became the North Star of my life.

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford blesses the altar of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Aurora, Colo. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: What practices have helped you remain faithful to your vocation during these 60 years?

Cardinal Stafford: When awakening each morning, I recite a single verse from Psalm 51, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Three times it is repeated. Thereafter, the grace of God sets the day on the right track. It becomes a song of praise to God. With hard practice it daily gathers momentum. It places front and center the most beautiful mystery of the Christian faith: The Triune God. The love and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity light up the whole day even when God appears more distant than near.

The psalmist has been a great catechist. He has taught me that human beings are doxological (people of praise) by nature especially in the Dark Night – not only as individuals, but also within community… Doxological prayer has led me to appreciate why St. Augustine wrote, “The goal of all Christian watchfulness and all Christian progress is a pious and sober understanding of the Trinity.”

Cardinal James Stafford holds a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta during a Mass celebrating her feast day at St. Joseph’s Parish on September 5, 2016, in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

DC: What have been some of the challenges and highlights of your priesthood?

Cardinal Stafford: The challenges: Christians in Europe and North America are struggling with the “juggernaut” of secularization… Generally, its roots are found in the fact that most Europeans and Americans today find themselves thrust into the universe without any foundation for living. Most imagine themselves in a free-fall through space with unintelligible entrances and exits. The challenge is how to confront this unprecedented reality. The pastoral solutions have seldom been forthcoming.

The highlights of my priesthood: Visiting the home-bound. They are the hidden pillars of every local Church. Beyond the home-bound, I have always felt that Colorado’s response to the invitation to celebrate the 1993 World Youth Day was the measure beyond all measure. In other words, the event was from God… [and] God was delighted with Coloradans.

Pope John Paul II thanks Cardinal Stafford for his leadership in organizing World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Who have been your greatest role models and how have they impacted your vocation?

Cardinal Stafford: My mother and father have been my greatest Christian role models. Their love and friendship were life-long and mutual. The two were the best of friends. Their life together, ten years after their marriage, was tested severely… [Tuberculosis] struck [my mother] with extreme severity.

She required prolonged hospitalization that included three major surgical operations over a period of nearly three years. Throughout that time her faith, courage and love remained ever-present signs along the road. My father’s love for his wife never faltered during her hospitalization… His presence to her was reassuring, quiet, and unassuming.  The grace of the sacrament of marriage sustained both of them and was an enormously important witness for me.

Cardinal Stafford celebrates Mass during World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by James Baca/Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Reflecting on your priestly experience, what practices are essential to the Catholic priest of the New Evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: The Eucharist has been the center of my life… Over the years, I learned that priestly celibacy was related to the eschatological nature of the Eucharist.  In 390 AD bishops at the Council of Carthage underlined this connection, “That holy bishops and priests of God…. observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.”

I’ve reflected for over four decades over the forthrightness of their statement. I still ask myself why the ancient bishops chose the phrase “in all simplicity.”  Their choice was related to the priest’s acting “in the person of Christ”. That’s Eucharistic and the Eucharist is doxological. Their assertion that clerical celibacy had apostolic origins surprised me.

Finally, a lay friend taught me one of the greatest graces of these sixty years, “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful,” from Meister Eckhart. That is my prayer in celebrating my 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.