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GrapevineDec/Jan 2011 Issue

Gluten-Free Bread of Life

Celebrating Mass on a gluten-free diet

Photo by Joslyn Ramey

There are certain milestones in our children’s lives that are forever etched in memory. For me, one such event was my son’s First Holy Communion, an important occasion (one of seven sacraments) that completes a Catholic’s Christian initiation. A lot of preparation and excitement goes into this solemn event. Mike memorized prayers and eagerly attended workshops and mini retreats. He was ready—but I was not.

Several months earlier, Mike had been diagnosed with celiac disease and I was spending enormous time and effort learning everything I could about the gluten-free diet. Just when I thought I had it figured out, I realized that I’d overlooked the most basic element of our religious practice—the communion wafer, which Mike would be receiving for the first time.

In Catholicism, the wafer signifies the body of Christ. I did some quick checking and discovered that according to Canon Law (the official Catholic Church rules), the “Bread of Life” must contain wheat in order to be valid. No substitutions allowed.

What would we do? I broke into tears. I was sad and confused but mostly I was angry. How could God let my son get a disease that would prevent him from being able to fully participate in his faith?

What ensued was a frenzy of researching and phone calls to our church. Ultimately,

Mike received a low-gluten wafer (0.01 percent gluten) in a separate pyx (a container designed to hold the wafers) that was consecrated alongside the wine and the regular communion wafers. To eliminate the potential for cross contamination, Mike was the first person to receive communion, directly after the priest washed his hands and before he touched the regular wheat wafers.

This arrangement solved the problem for the day but it was unrealistic to expect Mike to always be the first person to receive communion on any given Sunday or church day. We still had work to do.

With the help of our pastor, a system was established in our church where a Eucharistic minister was assigned to hold a chalice (clearly labeled) containing low-gluten wafers. This person stands next to the priest and/or Eucharistic minister(s) as the congregation files down the aisle to receive communion. My son loves this. It allows him to be in line with everyone else and requires no extra preparation or anxiety on his part.

Other Alternatives

For those who don’t wish to use the low-gluten wafer due to the trace amount of gluten that it contains,* the Catholic Church deems it acceptable for celiacs to fully receive the Eucharist in the form of wine alone. However, cross contamination issues need to be addressed. For example, the celebrant should not dip the wheat wafer into the chalice and celiacs should be the first to partake.

To reduce the trace amount of gluten in the low-gluten wafer even more, the wafer can be halved or even quartered. Also, it should be noted that Catholics are only obligated to receive communion once a year (during the Eastertide).

A valid alternative for Catholic celiacs is spiritual communion. “This is praying for the Lord to come to you in the same way He would if you physically received communion,” explains Mike Spreitzer of the Catholic Celiac Society. Spiritual communion is particularly appropriate for those who are traveling or attending Mass outside their home parish.

Oksana Charla, Living Without's design director, lives in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
*Since in some cases even 0.01 percent gluten is too much, celiacs should consult with their doctor before consuming low-gluten communion wafers.

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