It seems counter to spiritual sensibility that receiving the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Catholic faith, could be deleterious to the the health of a member of the body of Christ and yet such is the case for some Catholics with Celiac Sprue. Celiac disease is a genetic anomaly resulting in an immune reaction to wheat gluten (and related or cross contaminated grains). This causes some problems for Celiac Catholics and raises a few personal and theological questions. Why must the host be made from wheat? How much wheat must the host contain? What is the best way for Celiac Catholics to receive Holy Communion? Why attend Mass at all if not receiving Holy Communion? How can a transubstantiated host, which is no longer bread, still act like wheat in the human body? Can Celiac Catholics serve as Extraordinary Ministers? How should a Catholic Celiac handle the feeling of being singled out? Why me? What should a parent tell a celiac child receiving first Holy Communion under the wine species only because he/she cannot receive the bread species? We’ll take a look at each of these questions in the same order.
Why must the host be made from wheat?
1. The gospels attest at the institution of the Eucharist that, “The Lord took bread.” (Matthew 26:26 Mark 14:22 Luke 22:19 ) There is agreement among scholars that in Holy Scripture, including the above noted passages, the Greek term “ton arton” interpreted as “bread” always signifies wheaten bread.
2. Since Jesus instituted the Eucharist at a Passover meal he would have adhered unconditionally to the Jewish custom of using only wheaten bread in the Passover Supper.
3. By using the words “Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19), Jesus commanded the use of wheat bread in this most Holy Sacrament for all succeeding times.
How much wheat must the host contain?
The amount of wheat that the host must contain is not determined by weights or measures but rather by its ability to bake into bread and leaven (Eastern Rite) without the aid of foreign materials. Therefore any amount of wheat, no matter how small its gluten content, if it can be confected into bread, would be considered valid material for the sacrament. This is consistent with the answer to the previous question where it is as much the essence of bread that matters as it is the essence of wheat.
This is important because recently the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have found a way to prepare an ultra-low gluten wheat bread that still bakes and has ecclesial approval for consecration (details given below in the next q&a).
What is the best way for Celiac Catholics to receive Holy Communion?
Celiac Catholics have three choices regarding Holy Communion while avoiding the effects of wheat gluten. Considering that there are many factors involved which vary between Celiacs such as, the degree of wheat sensitivity, symptoms involved, availability of the options listed below, etc., it is recommended to consult a medical doctor and qualified spiritual director before making a decision concerning how to best receive communion.
1. OPTION ONE: Receive the Body of Christ consecrated from a specially prepared low gluten host.
The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have found a way to prepare an extremely low gluten wheat bread that bakes into a dense host with the distinctly sweet flavor of wheat and has ecclesial approval for consecration. In order to be Vatican approved for consecration a prospective host must contain some amount of wheat (gluten), in other words it cannot be truly and entirely 100% gluten free. The term ‘gluten free’ as proposed for use in the food industry by the FDA and currently in use for international standards (Codex Alimentarius) is a misnomer as each of these institutions permits the presence of gluten, varying from 20 parts per million (ppm) in naturally gluten free foods to 200 ppm in food or combined foods where gluten has been removed. These figures reflect an amount that permits fair practice by food manufacturers as well as respects recent scientific studies from a Finnish research team (100 ppm) and an Italian-U.S. research team (20 ppm). The Benedictine low gluten host is labeled at a mere100 ppm (0.01%) but in January 2010 the American Institute of Baking tested the sister’s confected hosts at far less than that. As far as the FDA is concerned the sisters could label their low gluten altar bread ‘gluten free’ but in the interest of conforming to the standard set by the Holy See and also to avoid undue concern about valid matter for consecration, the sisters have aptly titled this host ‘low gluten’.
Just how low gluten is this wonder bread? The sisters declined to say, however, using the generous 0.01% as a basis and weighing several hosts and host fragments, Sister Jeanne Crowe penned an article in Gluten Free Living (vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 4, 3ff), an article which the sisters quote on their website and which the USCCB likewise reference, denoting “On average, a whole host could contain no more than 37 micrograms of gluten… or 0.035 millionths of an ounce.” That’s small enough that most Celiacs can receive daily. Consult your doctor about what level of gluten is safe for you.
To receive a low gluten host at communion time you will need to make arrangements through your pastor who should obtain the necessary permission of the local ordinary (usually a bishop) and make plans for the special protocol required. On a regular basis care should be taken to arrive early at Mass and advise the celebrant of the Celiac’s presence and the need to receive a low gluten host and for it to be kept in a separate ciborium. Your parish can order these host breads directly from the Benedictine sisters:
Website-order form page:
Phone 800 223-2772
Address: Altar Bread Department, Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Clyde, Mo 64432
2. OPTION TWO: Receive the Precious Blood only.
The present cannon law permits the reception of Holy Communion under both species or by bread species alone and also the wine species alone where necessary. In receiving the wine species alone the faithful receive the entire sacrament and full presence of Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. This is explained by the Doctrine of Concomitance (or accompaniment) which teaches that the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ form one indivisible Person, and therefore must be found together. This remains true no matter which species or how small the individual pieces of the Eucharistic may become.
The main concern for most Catholic Celiacs receiving the wine species only is to be sure to receive from a cup that has not been commingled with the bread species, either directly by the priest through intentional rite of commingling (Commixtion), intinction (not in ordinary practice today), or indirectly by the laity who receiving both species unintentionally transfer crumbs or residue. In the former case, even if the wine species is not offered to the laity or if in a small gathering the only cup offered is the priest’s Chalice, the right of the faithful , who in this case are Celiac, to receive the Precious Blood would supersede the inclusion of the rite of comingling or require a second cup unless the wine species is ordinarily offered to the congregation. In the latter case it would be advisable to find seating in a location where you can be among the first to receive the cup. In the former situations care should be taken to arrive early at Mass and advise the celebrant of the Celiac’s presence and the need to receive the Precious Blood free of commingling. The priest may then choose the most appropriate way to offer the wine species at Communion time, which may mean him offering you the cup himself or offering it through an extraordinary minister whom he would train.
When traveling it is often not possible to speak with a pastor or a celebrating priest prior to receiving. This can sometimes mean an awkward encounter with ministers who are unfamiliar with the practice of receiving the wine species alone. In these cases it is important to maintain a charitable exchange with them and afterwards advise the priest of the need to form the ministers to be sensitive to those who can receive only from the cup.
3. OPTION THREE: Make spiritual communion only (attending Mass but not receiving either species)
In severe cases of Celiac Sprue or in situations where celiacs are also recovering alcoholics, it may not be possible to receive either species . While this option means not bodily receiving the substantial presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, making a spiritual communion still unites one to Christ in a very special way. According to Fr. Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary the Council of Trent teaches that the faithful who “receive the Eucharist in spirit” are “those who, enflamed with a lively faith that works in charity, partake in wish and desire of the celestial Bread offered to them, receive from it, if not the entire, at least very great benefits.” It is important that faith working in charity makes the spiritual communion efficacious just as a person properly disposed and discerning his conscience prepares him to receive sacramental communion.
Since the ordinarily invisible spiritual world is no less real than the ordinarily visible tangible world a spiritual communion is no less real than a sacramental communion. Faith in the invisible world is part of the first article in our Nicene Creed, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all that is seen and unseen.” The Father, the Holy Spirit and all the angels are pure spirit and thus ordinarily unseen by the human eye and at the same time their very real and invisible presence is at work in our visible world. Knowing this, it isn’t hard to picture that a communion made in unseen spirit is a real communion made with the unseen Christ, not aided by the veiling appearances of bread and wine (cf Matthew 6:6). Although Christ instituted the Eucharist as a sacrament under the outward signs of bread and wine, the important thing to remember is that the presence of Christ in the spiritual communion prepared by faith working in charity, though not substantial, is just as real.
Depending on the circumstances, abstaining, if only for a period of time, might be fitting with the virtue of prudence and Jesus may make good use of the situation to produce the good fruit of increased, even a constant, desire to commune with Him in the sacrament of the Eucharist. As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Like children, who do not receive the Holy Eucharist till they grow to the age of reason, God may want our hearts to grow in love for his sacrament. Or like fine wine, God may reserve the Eucharist for us till our desire for Him matures with an abundance of flavor. Periods of abstinence may also produce the greatly beneficial and good habit of praying a spiritual communion outside of Mass, which in turn is the perfect preparation for the Eucharistic Celebration. Saint Teresa of Avila recommends: “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you”.
Also fitting with the virtue of prudence is to consider when the risk to a Catholic Celiac’s health through sacramental communion is outweighed by the need for saving grace as happens near death or serious illness. In such situations it may be more prudent for a Celiac Catholic to receive the healing of the sick or the last sacraments, including the Holy Eucharist as Viaticum. As previously mentioned, in these situations and when possible the consultation of a qualified spiritual advisor is recommended.
Here’s a common script of spiritual communion which can be prayed at any moment outside of Holy Mass as well as during communion at Holy Mass if not receiving the sacrament:
My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
And a shorter Marian form spread by Saint Josemaría Escrivá and Opus Dei:
I wish, Lord, to receive you with the purity, humility and devotion with which your most holy Mother received you, with the spirit and fervor of the saints.
Why attend Mass at all if not receiving Holy Communion?
While receiving the Eucharist provides necessary grace for salvation (John 6:52-54) there is no requirement to do so daily as in the Our Father prayer, or even weekly (cf 1 Corinthians 11:26), but the Church obliges us to take part in Sunday and feast day Masses and to receive at least annually at Easter (CCC 1389, CCC 1417). When at Mass we do more than just attend, like at a soccer game or movie theatre, we participate by offering our daily sufferings, prayers and supplications as well as those of our friends and relatives to God, uniting them with Christ’s suffering and thus raising us and these trials to new life as Christ rose from the dead.
Attending Sunday Mass, whether receiving the Eucharist or not, is obligatory for Catholics to remain in good standing with the Church (CCC 2180-2181).CCC 1419¶1419 Having passed from this world to the Father, Christ gives us in the Eucharist the pledge of glory with him. Participation in the Holy Sacrifice identifies us with his Heart, sustains our strength along the pilgrimage of this life, makes us long for eternal life, and unites us even now to the Church in heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints.
CCC 2176¶2176 The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship "as a sign of his universal beneficence to all." Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people.
CCC 2182¶2182 Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God's holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
How can a transubstantiated host, which is no longer bread, still act like wheat in the human body?
While the entire substance of bread has indeed been transubstantiated into the entire substance of Christ (Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity) such that the bread and wine cease to exist, their appearances remain, and those appearances act upon the senses just as the substance that they properly belong to naturally would. We sometimes say that Body and Blood of Christ are veiled by the appearances of bread and wine but ‘appearances’ means more than just what we see. The metaphysical term that the Church has employed to more accurately define ‘appearances’ is ‘Accidents’, which means those nonessential properties that exist in another thing. So those remaining (or attached) appearances (or accidents) belonging to wheat and wine do act upon the senses, are measurable, and do bring about the effects natural to the substance to which they belong. So the Eucharist looks like bread and wine, tastes like bread and wine, and acts like bread and wine, but in substance it is fully Christ and Christ only.
Can Celiac Catholics serve as Extraordinary Ministers?
It is recommended to consult your pastor before volunteering as it would not be advisable for Celiacs who cannot receive the bread species or who cannot have any contact with wheat to volunteer for service as an Extraordinary Minister for the same reason that Ordinary Ministers (priests) are not permitted to celebrate or concelebrate under a single species; because reception under both kinds is a complete sign of the sacrament to the faithful. Additionally, extraordinary ministers are usually required to handle both species during the stay of their service which would require direct contact with the consecrated host.
How should a Catholic Celiac handle the feeling of being singled out?
It is natural for Catholics who are gluten intolerant to feel isolated from Christ and Christ’s people especially when they are unable to receive the Holy Eucharist while the rest of the community does. Three types of communion are at work here. The first is Holy Communion which is the sacred expression of togetherness between Christ and the recipient of the Eucharist. The second is the Communion of Saints which may be understood to be the sharing of holy things, primarily the Eucharist, among holy people (CCC 948) . Yet there is a third type of communion, namely the communion of sacraments which unites the faithful with one another and binds them to Christ. As the gate by which we enter into the Church, Baptism stands before them all (CCC 950). So we, the Church, are mystically joined as one body in Christ and what body, receiving food into itself, could keep that food from spreading throughout? So we rejoice when our brethren receive in body, for as they receive, being part of the mystical body of Christ along with us, so too do we receive in spirit (cf 1 Corinthians 12:26 and CCC 947). There is another simplified way to explain this communicative property. If I own a car and I am married to my wife and all our property is community property then my wife also owns the same car. This is especially true of spiritual gifts since through the sacrament of marriage man and wife are made one flesh. Likewise, the Church is one body in Christ who is the head such that whatever one member receives in Christ all receive in Christ (cf 1 Corinthians 12:1-31).
The show of individualism is discouraged in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) for this same reason of being one body. Allow me to truncate chapter II paragraphs 95 and 96 which reads:
“In the celebration of Mass the faithful form a holy people… They should, moreover, endeavor to make this clear by their deep religious sense and their charity toward brothers and sisters who participate with them in the same celebration. Thus, they are to shun any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have only one Father in heaven and accordingly are all brothers and sisters to each other.”
With this understanding how is a Catholic Celiac to handle the use of special hosts, receiving the wine species only, or receiving only spiritually? The answer is contained within the above quote where I have underlined the pertinent parts; namely charity and a view toward the Father. When asked, explain your situation with charity. When not asked no explanation is needed. Regardless you have only to keep your eyes on our one Father in heaven.
Why has Christ chosen this particular cross for me? What have I done? Why doesn’t Christ want to be with me? These are questions that Catholic Celiacs may sometimes find themselves asking at least internally. Consider that God the Father, in His divine providence, and Jesus in His perfect wisdom, and the Holy Spirit in pure love have chosen to appoint you in this time and place in your genealogy to receive all that you need for the sake of your salvation. It is precisely because Jesus wants to be with you for all eternity that He has chosen this cross for you on earth.
What should a parent tell a celiac child receiving first Holy Communion under the wine species only because he/she cannot receive the bread species?
Children of the age to receive Holy Communion, which is generally the age of reason in the Latin Rite , may find comfort in their parent’s voice and words. Parents can reassure their children that God loves him/her and that He manifests that love in the sacrament of Holy Communion through the wine species.
“God loves you so much that He calls you to receive Him by the sign of wine.”
“God, through His infinite love and wisdom has chosen for you to receive all of Him (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) through His Precious Blood under the sign (or appearance) of wine.”
Parents who themselves find this answer satisfactory and pleasing should be able to set an expectation of their children’s acceptance and instill in them a lifelong desire to receive Holy Communion under the single sign of wine. Since all the faithful are free to receive the species of wine alone, parents may choose to set an example for their children and share in their meal restrictions, particularly the Holy Eucharist by likewise receiving the wine species alone.
In conclusion a prayer of praise:
I praise you God the Father for your providence, for by it you manifested your love for us through the sacrifice of Jesus, your only begotten Son, so that through His death and resurrection, we might be brought to life eternal as your adopted children.
I praise you Jesus for your infinite wisdom, for by it you have chosen both bread and wine as signs of your saving sacrament.
I praise you Holy Spirit for your instructing and consoling love, for by it you change the gifts of bread and wine to Christ and you teach us to love the Holy Eucharist most perfectly.
Matter of Eucharistic Elements:
Communion under both kinds:
Modern Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J., 1999 Intermirifica, p 119
Low Gluten / Gluten Free Altar Breads:
Valid low gluten material:
General Instructions of the Roman Missal:
Holy Communion and Celiac Sprue Disease:
http://www.catholicceliacs.org/ (last update on this site was Nv. 8, 2004)
FDA on Gluten:
Gluten Free (safe levels):
Communion in the Eastern Rite:
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994 Concacan Inc. LIBRERIA EDITRICE VATICANA
2003 Vatican Protocol No. 98/78-17498
1995 Vatican Protocol No. 89/78
Diocese of Orange California, Office for Worship
Sancta sanctis! ("God's holy gifts for God's holy people") is proclaimed by the celebrant in most Eastern liturgies during the elevation of the holy Gifts before the distribution of communion. The faithful (sancti) are fed by Christ's holy body and blood (sancta) to grow in the communion of the Holy Spirit (koinonia) and to communicate it to the world.
- In the July 24, 2003 letter, permission for priests, deacons or the lay faithful without distinction to use mustum or low-gluten hosts is now within the competence of the local Ordinary. The authority to permit the lay faithful to use mustum and low-gluten hosts in the reception of Holy Communion may be, but is not automatically, delegated to pastors under CIC [Codes Iuris Canonicis], canon 137.1. This provision will relieve Ordinaries of the burden of processing what could be many such requests. Medical certification of a condition justifying the use of mustum or low-gluten hosts for Holy Communion is no longer required. Such permission, once granted, stands for as long as the condition persists which occasioned the request for the original permission….In view of this important belief, the faithful may be encouraged to approach their pastors, seeking the special permissions required for Holy Communion under the species of wine alone, or by the use of either mustum or low-gluten hosts, and to be confident in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist they receive. Nov. 2003 BCL Newsletter [↩]
- Can. 925 Holy communion is to be given under the species of bread alone or, in accordance with the liturgical laws, under both species or, in case of necessity, even under the species of wine alone. [↩]
- For Christ is whole and entire under the form of bread and under any part of that form; likewise the whole Christ is present under the form of wine and under all its parts. Trent, Sess, XIII, c.,III [↩]
- 1983 CIC 843. § 1. Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. § 2. Pastors of souls and other members of the Christian faithful, according to their respective ecclesiastical function, have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them by proper evangelization and catechetical instruction, attentive to the norms issued by competent authority. [↩]
- 1983 CIC 213. The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments. [See also CCEO 16] [↩]
- Olim: 1917 CIC 682. Laity have the right of receiving from the clergy, according to the norm of ecclesiastical discipline, spiritual goods and especially that aid necessary for salvation. [↩]
- priests may obtain special permission from the ordinary to consecrate the wine using mustum, a specially prepared and approved wine where the fermentation process has been arrested at its inception. [↩]
- EWTN’s online translation of Trent, Sess, XIII, c.,VIII offers this translation: “…spiritually only, namely, those who eating in desire the heavenly bread set before them, are by a lively faith which worketh by charity made sensible of its fruit and usefulness” [↩]
- Camino de Perfección, Chapter 35 [↩]
- quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, location, duration, position, and habiliment [↩]
- Modern Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J., 1999 Intermirifica, p 116 [↩]
- In the Roman Rite the present practice in determining eligibility to receive Holy Communion is the ability to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, whether by voice, manner, gesture or other sign, which usually is manifest when the recipient can reason. However, doctrinally, all that is required is that the recipient be validly baptized and in the state of grace. In the Eastern Rite, Holy Communion is given at Baptism, which generally occurs at infancy. Later, around the age of reason [about 7 years] children in the Eastern Rite make a Solemn First Communion. [↩]