Gluten-free Hosts

And More on Homilies While Walking

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ROME, SEPT. 14, 2004 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I’ve been recently told of a girl who could not receive her first Communion because she was allergic to wheat gluten. The Catholic Church doctrine says that is the composition the host needs to be made of. I don’t know how to answer this question from a «fallen away» Catholic. — M.G., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A: The problem is twofold. One is theological and concerns the proper matter for the Eucharist and the broader question of the Churches power over the sacraments.

Another question is practical and concerns how to address special situation such as celiac disease.

From the theological perspective the Church’s power over some elements of the sacraments is not absolute and must respect those elements which it understands as having been determined by the Lord himself.

Among these elements is the use of water and the Trinitarian formula for baptism and the exclusive use of wheat bread and grape wine for the Eucharist.

In a certain way the submission to these limitations is also a recognition and an affirmation of the reality of the Incarnation in which the second person of the Blessed Trinity submitted himself to the limits of space and time by becoming man.

By continuing to use only those elements used by Christ, the Church in a way joins herself to his act of self-limitation and to the concrete historical reality of the Incarnation.

If it were possible for the Church to change the essential elements of the sacraments with every historical epoch and every cultural context, then this connection with the Incarnation, and indeed the reality of the sacraments as prolongation of the Incarnation, would become rather tenuous.

In the end, as has happened at times with other Christian groups that weakened the sacraments, the faith in the very reality of God become man is often undermined in favor of a creeping Docetism or a nebulous manifestation of the Divinity.

Thus one can understand why the Church pays such very great attention to the elements of the sacraments in spite of at times appearing excessively attentive to details such as alcohol and gluten levels.

The Holy See has declared that some gluten is necessary for the substance to be considered as true bread. And thus a gluten-free wafer, in spite of its external resemblance, is no longer bread and thus is incapable of becoming the Body of Christ.

The sacraments are far too important to risk performing them invalidly.

On the practical level, sufferers from celiac disease, about one in every 130 people, face a real difficulty as they are incapable of consuming gluten.

At the same time the Church has too much respect for the faithful with this condition to allow them to fall into error regarding whether they receive a genuinely consecrated host or not.

It would be a manifest act of negligence on the Church’s part to look the other way while some members of the faithful were being innocently induced into an act of idolatry by attributing adoration to what is in fact a lump of matter.

This might seem harsh on the sentiments of some, especially in the case of children who reach the age of first Communion and don’t want to stand out from the rest by receiving differently. But, until recently, as we shall see below, there was no viable alternative.

One fairly easy solution is to receive only under the species of wine. This usually requires the use of a second, smaller chalice as even the particle of host that the priest places in the chalice can have adverse effects on sufferers.

This is the solution I adopted for a sufferer in my own parish, with no great difficulty. It is even easier to apply in those countries where Communion is habitually offered under both species and the host fragment is placed only in the principal chalice.

Recently, however, another solution has been found thanks to the patience and perseverance of two nuns, Sisters Jane Heschmeyer and Lynn Marie D’Souza, of the Benedictine convent in Clyde, Missouri. Over two years of experiments they have developed a Communion wafer that has been approved as valid material for the Eucharist by the Holy See.

With a level of gluten content of 0.01% it is safe enough for consumption by almost all celiac suffers, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano of the University of Maryland and other medical experts.

The U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has deemed the sisters’ bread «the only true, low-gluten altar bread approved for use at Mass in the United States.»

Fasano called the sisters’ accomplishment «very wonderful news,» but added that celiac sufferers should still consult with their doctors before consuming the new hosts. «In rare cases even 0.01% is still too much,» Fasano said.

See the Catholic Key story posted on the Web.

Although the sisters’ work seems to be the most promising to date, others were also working on the problem and the Church has also recently approved other low-gluten breads in Italy and Australia.

* * *

Follow-up: Homilies While Walking

The column regarding homilies-while-walking-about (see Aug. 31) brought to mind a related question from a South African correspondent.

She wrote: «Instead of a homily, a certain priest played the song ‘Imagine’ — by the Beatles or by one of the Beatles — and then pranced about the altar and up and down the aisle. Is this type of behavior in keeping with the liturgy? I was not present but two independent persons called me to ask whether I knew if this is what we can expect in the future.»

After the publication of the recent instruction «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» I certainly hope we can expect no more of this kind of thing in the future.

Of course, if the congregation took John Lennon’s imagination seriously, especially the lines about imagining no heaven and no religion, the good father would be prancing down the aisle of an empty church.

«Redemptionis Sacramentum» Nos. 67 and 68 are very clear regarding the qualities of the homily:

«Particular care is to be taken so that the homily is firmly based upon the mysteries of salvation, expounding the mysteries of the Faith and the norms of Christian life from the biblical readings and liturgical texts throughout the course of the liturgical year and providing commentary on the texts of the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass, or of some other rite of the Church.

«It is clear that all interpretations of Sacred Scripture are to be referred back to Christ himself as the one upon whom the entire economy of salvation hinges, though this should be done in light of the specific context of the liturgical celebration. In the homily to be given, care is to be taken so that the light of Christ may shine upon life’s events. Even so, this is to be done so as not to obscure the true and unadulterated word of God: for instance, treating only of politics or profane subjects, or drawing upon notions derived from contemporary pseudo-religious currents as a source.

«The diocesan Bishop must diligently oversee the preaching of the homily, also publishing norms and distributing guidelines and auxiliary tools to the sacred ministers, and promoting meetings and other projects for this purpose so that they may have the opportunity to consider the nature of the homily more precisely and find help in its preparation.»

Thus it is evident that the practice you mention in no way corresponds to what a homily should be, and indeed it deprives the faithful of their right to have God’s Word and the Church’s teaching imparted to them.

The practice described is further weighed down by the superficiality and overall lack of respect shown toward the liturgy by the intromission of
elements that are totally alien to the sacred rite.

While the song in question is not without merits, it hardly reflects Christian theology. But the principle that no external element may substitute the homily would hold true even if the priest had played specifically Christian music. Not even Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus or Mozart’s Requiem, can replace the preaching of God’s word.

It is also difficult to excuse as a momentary slip due to the deliberate planning required in carrying out such an operation.

As «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» No. 79, says: «Finally, it is strictly to be considered an abuse to introduce into the celebration of Holy Mass elements that are contrary to the prescriptions of the liturgical books and taken from the rites of other religions.»

If the priest in question were to continue engaging in similar practices, the diocesan bishop, who, as seen above in RS 68, oversees the preaching of the homily, should be informed in a sober and factual manner so that he may orient the priest to a correct understanding of his mission as preacher of God’s word.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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