Can I never receive the host at Communion again?

Written by Karen Mahoney | For The Compass
Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Finding the blessing after a diagnosis of celiac disease

The most difficult part of the diagnosis of a disease that prevents us from eating wheat was not that we could no longer have Friday pizza nights, bakery cookies, or crusty loaves of bread. It was realizing that the most precious aspect of our Catholic faith – the Eucharist – had become dangerous to our health.

Church teaching requires that Communion hosts, which are consecrated during Mass, be made of wheat. It was a terribly painful Sunday three years ago, when two of my five children and I realized that we could no longer receive the host.

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A prayer card rests near stacks of hosts made by Cistercian sisters in Wisconsin. Catholics with celiac disease are unable to take regular Communion hosts made with wheat flour. (Sam Lucero photo | The Compass)

We felt a sense of emptiness and a spiritual hunger. While we knew we could receive Jesus under the species of the wine, it didn’t seem an option for us. Our digestive systems were very reactive and we risked ingesting a bit of host. (Called the fermentum, a bit of the consecrated host is placed into the cup by the priest.)

We suffer from celiac sprue, an autoimmune disease that affects the small intestine when wheat, rye, barley, oats and gluten-containing products are consumed. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, about 1 in 133 people in the United States has the disease. The only treatment is lifelong avoidance of gluten, the protein in grain that triggers the damage. Yet, the remedy leaves few options for Catholics, since the Communion wafer is the center of our faith.

While rice and soy-based wafers are available, canon law states that only unleavened bread made from water and wheat flour may be used for Communion.

For two weeks, we stayed in our pews, bowed our heads and silently mouthed the words to receive spiritual Communion. Our pastor, Fr. Terry Huebner of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lake Geneva, noticed. He stopped us after Mass to find out why we were abstaining.

Tearfully, I explained and told him that I would step down in my role as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion because it would be awkward not to receive our Lord on the altar.

Immediately, his faced brightened, and his cheerful response changed our lives forever.

“You know, there are other Catholics, even in this parish who have celiac disease,” he said. “There are special hosts that you can order. They are made by a group of Benedictine nuns, and approved by all of the bishops in the United States.”

Fr. Huebner directed me to the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Mo. After 10 years of experimenting, they had invented the first low-gluten altar bread that can be consumed by most people with celiac disease. Fr. Huebner also said he would provide a separate chalice for us, so that we would not risk cross-contamination by the fermentum.

In addition to prayer, the mission of these Benedictines is to bake Communion wafers. They are the largest religious producers of Communion wafers and ship more than two million per week.

It all began with a phone call to customer service in the early 1990s. Sr. Jane Heschmeyer heard the voice on the other end asking if the sisters could make hosts without gluten because she could not tolerate gluten.

Stumped, Sr. Jane turned to Sr. Lynn D’Souza, who had a degree in biomedical science, and they began to develop a low-gluten wafer. Sr. Lynn admitted that making the wafer was tricky because it needed enough gluten to satisfy canon law, but not too much to affect those with celiac disease. The sisters experimented with two types of wheat starch containing only trace amounts of gluten, but nothing seemed to work until they combined the two.

After placing what Sr. D’Souza called a “sticky messy glob” on the baking plate, it produced a light, bubbly wafer. Tests found the wafers contained 0.01 percent gluten, an amount considered safe for most celiacs.

While the sisters attributed their success to the Holy Spirit, they still needed approval of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2003, they received it. They now serve more than 2,000 parishes and individuals across the U.S., Canada and other countries.
Some celiac patients choose to partake in the Blood of Christ only, rather than risk a reaction to the low-gluten altar bread. (Full participation in the Eucharist can be had under either species, bread or wine.) However, for my children and me, the host is a gift from God.

While our parish orders the low-gluten altar bread for us, we also order a supply to keep our freezer and carry it in a pyx when we travel. Before Mass, we bring it to the parish priest and he consecrates them at the altar so we can receive the Body of Christ like everyone else. For our family, it was the perfect solution and we are most grateful to the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

For more information on low gluten altar bread, contact the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at 1-800-223-2772. Their Web site is http://www.benedictinesisters.org.

Mahoney is a freelance writer who lives in Salem, Wis.

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