Non Solum: The Composition and Appearance of Eucharistic Bread

Today’s question:  The Composition and Appearance of Eucharistic Bread

Many congregations today struggle with the decision to use the store bought wafers or to bake their own bread.  In trying to understand the Church’s vision on this topic, one finds that the texts and canons are slightly ambiguous –

e.g. Redemptionis Sacramentum §48

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. It is a grave abuse to introduce other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey, into the bread for confecting the Eucharist.

…or De Defectibus §III.3

If the bread is not made of wheat flour, or if so much other grain is mixed with the wheat that it is no longer wheat bread, or if it is adulterated in some other way, there is no Sacrament.

Is salt permitted, for instance? And what about water? Not explicitly mentioned. Is it OK to use 10 grams of rye flour in a kilogram of wheat? Whole-wheat flour?

…and then there’s the GIRM §320.

The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat [and water, presumably], must be recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.

…which seems in mild tension with the following section – §321.

The meaning of the sign demands that the material for the Eucharistic Celebration truly have the appearance of food.

What is your take on this?  Would it be a good idea for parishes to have a team of bread bakers that bake bread that actually looks like bread?  Or are the manna-like wafers stamped out by a machine somewhere fine enough?  Let us know what you think and what your parish does.

Moderator’s note: “Non solum” is a new feature at Pray Tell for our readership community to discuss practical liturgical issues. The title comes from article 11 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Therefore there is to be vigilance among holy pastors that in liturgical action not only are laws for valid and licit celebration to be observed, but that the faithful should participate knowingly, actively, and fruitfully.” (Ideo sacris pastoribus advigilandum est ut in actione liturgica non solum observentur leges ad validam et licitam celebrationem, sed ut fideles scienter, actuose et fructuose eandem participent.) May the series contribute to good liturgical practice – not only following the law, but especially grasping the spirit of the liturgy!


  1. “Many parishes” struggle with this? I don’t mean to quibble with the main point of the post, but “my parish and the parishes of my geekklesia friends” is not the same as “many parishes” – has any research been done on this to determine what percentage of parishes even have this in their consciousness?
    I’m not sure why it would be better for the parish to bake its own bread vs. press and ferment its own wine.

    1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #1:
      I agree, Alan, that “many parishes” is a stretch. At the same time, I think the benefit to a parish baking its own bread is that it often “truly [has] the appearance of food,” perhaps more so than the wafers. Having the bread baked locally also broadens parish involvement. I have heard, from people from my parish who bake bread for liturgy, that the process is a peaceful time of prayer for our community of ~150 resident parishioner households and ~500 college students.

      As far as locally made bread vs. wine: whether a parish buys it or makes wine locally, it has more or less the same appearance. That’s not always true for the bread.

      1. @Kyle Lechtenberg – comment #3:
        I don’t really agree – commercially produced altar wines may have the visual appearance of table wine but certainly not the taste or other sensory aspects. They taste more like sherry or port which is what they are ie fortified wine, strong tasting and unpleasant, yuk! Few people would associate altar wine with their everyday experience of wine. The only reason I can tell for this odd situation harks back to pre-VC2 days when hardly and wine was consecrated and there was a danger it might go off in the sacristy. In our parish we use a couple over boxes of wine at the weekend so there’s hardly and danger of that, plus non-fortified wine is considerably cheaper.

        We give people bread which is unbread like and wine that is unwine like, crazy really when you think about it!

  2. Alan Hommerding : I’m not sure why it would be better for the parish to bake its own bread vs. press and ferment its own wine.

    Setting aside for the moment the question of how many parishes find this to be an issue, perhaps it would be helpful to keep our focus on the composition and appearance of the Eucharistic bread, and not on where it is made or who bakes it. At least commercially-produced wine still looks and tastes like wine.

  3. For our Sunday Mass we have a parishioner who makes the bread, which is, I think, made from only whole-wheat flour and water. A number of years ago it had all sorts of other stuff in it, like honey and baking powder, but that changed under our former pastor.

    For other Masses we use hosts and it is hosts that get reserved in the tabernacle.

    I think the bread vs. hosts issue used to matter to me more than it does now. What continues to matter to me is that people receive something that has been broken. So I would not be too upset if we stopped using the bread, as long as we used several large hosts that were broken up for communion.

  4. I too used to get excited about this issue and other such details, but this is not remotely on the radar of the people who gather in my parish for worship. Is our church welcoming or unwelcoming? Does the homilist make a good point, or put everyone to sleep? Is the music any good? Is the art and environment beautiful or nonexistent or something kitchy to laugh at? Are people bombarded with fundraisers before, during, and after Mass? These issues consume more of my time these days.

    I don’t mean to throw cold water on a topic of interest to many readers here. I hope you don’t take offense.

  5. “Many parishes” … Wrong, point taken, got it. Mea culpa.

    And I agree that the issue is the appearance of the bread. Fritz, in your parish does the home-made bread appear to be the “work of human hands”?

    Our manna-like wafers do not.

    By the way, isn’t homemade bread technically a “host” as well? Host, as in offering, victim, sacrifice?

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #6:
      You’re right re: “host” — as far as I know, our homemade bread is also a sacrificial victim.

      And it does look like the work of human hands — moreso when the 1st communicants make it. We typically use several loaves, approximately 6 inches across and scored to make about 60-70 pieces. The resulting pieces are a square and look a bit like chiclets, but still more like ordinary bread than a small round host does.

      Does it make a difference to the people in the pews? I know it does to some, in part because the baking is done by a long-time and much-loved parishioner who has served the parish in many ways over the years.

    2. @Jonathan Day – comment #6:
      I don’t care for the little round, white, paper-like stuff that ‘s used for THE Bread of Life. I abhor the term “wafers” though that’s what they look like. They don’t look like bread, don’t taste like bread, are not bread (after the consecration). Our Eucharistic Drink looks and tastes like wine. No problem with those appearances. I imagine that Jesus took what everyone considered bread and used it at the Last Supper. Since then, out or reverence, the Church has a load of regulations about the make up of the material that goes into our Eucharistic Food and Drink.

  6. Deacon – you have mentioned your experience before – what a great example and experience….if only!!!!!

    Sorry, across many states and hundreds of parishes have never experienced baked bread – like the tabernacle issue, it appears to be ignored almost universally.

    My experience in the 1970s was similar to your parish – we scheduled lectors/EMs along with bread bakers, etc.
    There were a number of challenges:
    – folks who were so scrupulous that they had to be given recipe copies to guarantee that it was only wheat flour and water
    – the success in terms of a *bread* that worked (edible); could be easily broken without shattering into hundreds of minute particles; could be eaten easily was a challenge. Beyond wheat flour, water (how much was ideal), salt, etc. was the consistency, kneading prior to baking, etc.
    – will say that high school guys learned the recipe/methods and really enjoyed volunteering for this position

  7. It’s important to remember that a wheat bread will spontaneously leaven quickly. Kosher for Passover matzah must be baked no more than 18 minutes after the first mixing of flour and water. I do not see why the same would not apply to the baking of hosts.

    As a layperson who is very sensitive to issues of validity, might I ask that priests who consecrate homemade altar bread place a ciborium of round commercially-produced hosts on the corporal? This way, I can receive Holy Communion with assurance.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #10:

        Yes, it is valid but illicit to consecrate leavened bread in the Roman rite (otherwise, Byzantines would be heretics). Yes, also, it doesn’t matter if some wild yeast leavens the homemade bread slightly.

        I apologize, my fundie-trad side reappeared. Even if the way the host looks makes me uncomfortable, I should be a good guest.

  8. No need to worry Jordan, the Eastern Orthodox have been using leavened bread for two millenia now and their Eucharist is indeed valid, I believe that we are allowed to partake in unusual circumstances and it is licit and valid.

    As an example of scrupulosity what about the water?
    If hosts are made with city water it probably has fluoride or chlorine in it, is this not an additional substance? Cavanaugh Altar Bread makes our hosts and is the largest producer of altar bread, they are in Rhode Island, do they use city water? Maybe distilled water should be used but it’s not natural, maybe spring water instead?

    I don’t think we should be too scrupulous about this. I agree with Deacon Fritz’s comment about “good-faith effort”.

    A little yeast or a little fluoride won’t stop the work of the Holy Spirit!

  9. As small children not long before Vatican 2 it seemed that we were taught to expend great efforts during Mass to be clear that now it was bread… and now in a moment it was the body of Christ. I can still remember doing this. But a little later it occurred to me that the first act of faith required was to believe that the small round object was actually bread.

    For me machine made wafers create an extra barrier between the eucharist and real life, and I appreciate the occasions when more natural kinds of bread are broken and shared. I can’t help being aware of the racist tendencies suggested by the very white confection, as well as knowing that a highly refined flour lacks at least some of the life enhancing components of a more natural product.

    Rightly or wrongly, I have assumed that the prevalence of the conventional wafers is connected with a desire to avoid crumbs. The fussiness of this kind of concern begs all sorts of questions about the inevitable spread of small amounts of material and impossibly literal mentalities.

  10. Ummmm….and why not commercially produced matzoh, either the larger crackers so that they can be broken and distributed to a few, and the individual “host-size” ones for the congregation? I have been doing this for years with admittedly smaller congregations. No issues about validity or liceity — and people get a real sense that this is something more than a “melt-in-your-mouth” tasteless wafer — no disrespect meant to the Sacred Species. It also helps people connect the Eucharist to its Jewish antecedents.

    1. @Rev. Richard Middleton – comment #14:
      Crumbs: if they are visible to the naked eye, they are still considered matter that has to be treated as consecrated, and using matter that increases that problem would probably draw quick discipline were the ordinary and Rome to be apprised. We may treat as “fussy” the careful precautions that have developed in the Roman ritual about this, but to blithely cast them aside does violence to the earnest and age-old sensibilities of many of the faithful in such a way that it could hardly qualify as progressive but instead be considered yet another score for clericalism. Unleavened bread, and to a lesser extent bread leavened with modern commercial yeast, has a crumb problem that the disc hosts are designed to minimize.I do want to add that one way progressives can lose the trust of faithful is by being too blithe and bonny about this issue. It would demonstrate a poverty of prioritization. Let’s not repeat mistakes.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #16:
        I was preparing my comment below because I had overlooked yours. The practicality of what is being discussed seems to have been ignored by most. —
        How about reducing the risk of having the Scared Species hit the floor? The wafer style hosts reduce that risk. Larger bread material requires more handling to prepare it for distribution which certainly adds to the probability that small fragments/particles go in errant directions and are lost on the floor. And for elderly recipients it would probably be much easier to consume a Host that dissolves quickly. Equally important would be the possibility that children have more time to play with the Host the longer it takes to swallow it.

      2. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #16:
        Yes Karl, but our new catechesis is teaching us otherwise. The faithful are now so desensitized to the Eucharist by It’s naming and treatment that many don’t even know or believe what It is. It looks like bread, so it’s bread. It’s called bread, so it’s bread. Matzo looks like saltines, not bread. Why not use those instead?

        Those that are offended by no care taken for spills and remaining particles, or are shocked to see the Eucharist called and treated as “leftovers” and wisked away to be dumped down a sacrarium (if there even is one), while “the dishes are done” away from the “guests” because it’s not polite, are labelled as fanatics or overly scrupulous. And why is it just the faithful that have to have their age-old sensibilities guarded? The priests are the guardians and keepers of the Eucharist, has something changed that the faithful weren’t let in on? They and their lay assistants don’t have to worry about it once the Eucharist is distributed and out of sight? If we’re all one body, everyone should have and show the same care. A real “we/they” dichotomy is being set-up in this discussion.

        It seems that it’s one small portion of the people that are worried about what bread is used, just like many other hot button issues that are discussed here. So much for organic change. They’re foisted by a select few and hoped that in time everyone accepts and goes along with it because it’s what’s best for all. I’m sorry, but that sounds rather elitist and that father (no pun intended) knows best for the poor dumb sheep. So really, nothing has changed.

        ‘How many of you say: I should like to see His face, His garments, His shoes. You do see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him. He gives Himself to you, not only that you may see Him, but also to be your food and nourishment.’
        Saint John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions

  11. Regarding crumbs, I think people underestimate the size of actual crumbs from “actual” bread (compared to the manufactured large and single hosts most of us are accustomed to).

    My wife bakes a couple loaves of bread every month or so, and I’ve found that I am unable to handle a slice of bread (already cut!) without littering our kitchen counter with significantly-sized crumbs. My wife can always tell if I’ve made a sandwich (and failed to clean up after myself) because of the detritus that comes from a slice or two of bread. These are not small particles that can barely be seen with the naked eye, or can only be noticed because of their contrast with the color of the counter. These are easily-perceived crumbs.

    I know that leavened bread behaves differently from unleavened bread, but we should not be so quick to dismiss the matter of crumbs. Scrupulosity is one thing, but utter disregard for the sign is another. If the whole host, and the fragments thereof, are truly the Eucharist, then let’s handle the fragments respectfully.

  12. Maybe it’s me but nowhere has anyone on this post stated they disregarded crumbs. It started w/ Karl then Jeff then Michael then John. Where did Rev Richard Middleton state anything about crumbs? It was “assumed” that there would be crumbs, then “assumed” that because he used Matzoh bread he didn’t care about crumbs, then it turns into progressives disregard crumbs then it spirals downward from there.
    If one “assumed” that there would be too many crumbs if a large non leavened bread is broken then one has not broken a large non leavened bread. We used Cavanaugh Altar Breads. We’ve used the large 5 1/4 inch (about 24 pieces, 48 if broken twice) and the 9 inch double thick whole wheat, about 70 pieces. I was privileged to assist the priest in breaking these large hosts before the change in rubrics. If one holds the host horizontally and breaks down over the paten or corporal no pieces go flying and there are relatively few crumbs. If Rev Richard used Matzoh bread/crackers, the same holds true, fracture them downward over a receptacle and “crumb problems” are controlled.
    Again, who stated that progressives disregard crumbs on this site?
    Btw John #20, I prefer “fragments” or “residue” rather than “crumbs” I think it is more respectful and if anyone has tried to remove tiny dust particles of hosts held to the inside of a ciborium or paten by static electricity one would agree that residue is more appropriate. Also I discouraged the term that YOU use “leftovers” we always used the term “remaining hosts”. In any event IMO your comment takes a very broad swipe and you have made some very bold and serious accusations.
    I practice evidence based medicine, I’d like to see your evidence using actual names and those churches that corroborate your statements:
    New catechesis teaching us otherwise.
    Eucharist treated as leftovers and dumped down a sacrarium.
    No pre-packaged opinions from “other” sites or histrionics please, but actual evidence for these serious accusations that you have made.

  13. Back in 1997 the Archdiocese of Los Angeles published a Guide for Sunday Mass. In it there is the recommendation, following GIRM, that “the material for the eucharistic celebration appear as actual food.” At that point it is stated that the Archdiocesan Office of Worship would provide recipes for approved altar breads, and they sent one to me when I inquired. I do not know how many parishes took this up then and how many still follow it today. By the way, the later GIRM retains this recommendation at paragraph 321.

  14. As to the bleached flour used in the making of those white glossy hosts, this from Wiki:

    Flour bleaching agent is a food additive added to flour in order to make it appear whiter (freshly milled flour has a yellowish tint) and to oxidize the surfaces of the flour grains and help with developing of gluten.
    Usual bleaching agents are:
    Organic peroxides, namely benzoyl peroxide
    Calcium peroxide
    Nitrogen dioxide
    Chlorine dioxide
    Atmospheric oxygen, used during natural aging of flour
    Use of chlorine, bromates, and peroxides is not allowed in the European Union.

  15. At St. Meinrad where I studied theology in the early 70’s, the bread was freshly baked by monks with a small amount of honey. It looked like bread and was actually tasty. It was so refreshing to not have to make two acts of faith with regard to the Eucharist, that it had been real bread in which one also encountered the real presence of Christ. The idea that such unleavened bread is invalid or illicit matter is absurd and represents a grievous example of gratuitous regulation. I can still remember those dime sized, shiny white discs I received as a child. That they were considered valid matter stretches credulity.
    We use the thicker Cavanaugh product that looks and tastes at least a little like bread. I always use the 5+ inch bread so that it can be broken and distributed to at least some of the people. I would love to see a regulation forbidding the use of the two inch personal sized host that so many priests still use and consume themselves. I just love their meticulously careful effort to make it appear unbroken. Geesh!

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #25:
      Who gets to decide what looks like real food? I’ve never had a problem with recognizing the bread and wine used as true food, nor have I ever heard people voice this confusion. On the other hand, I’ve had plenty of issues in deciding whether or not valid matter was used. Some post-Vatican ii priests take the whole alter Christus thing to such an extreme that they believe that they can decide by themselves what elements should be used for the Eucharist.

  16. In His command, “Take and eat…” the word Jesus used for ‘eat’ was actually something more like ‘gnaw’… to connote really, really, working at chewing/eating. Except for small groups, it’d be hard to make a bread that really takes some “chomping”.
    With the Precious Blood, do we really take and DRINK or more likely take a little sip? A far cry from, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me…”

    I don’t know if we could ever have ‘perfect’ Eucharistic elements. But what is most important, what is the real sign, we already have– the ability to take and eat… drink. The eating and the drinking matter most.
    Traditionally, we have always held that the Sacrament remains as long as the sign remains. If, God forbid, the Percious Blood is ‘left over’ long enough to become vinegar, it is no longer the Precious Blood. No longer ‘real drink’. Could minute particles of Host still be considered “real food”? We should care about particles, “crumbs” or whatever, but is there a point where we can become tooooo scrupulous?

    1. @John Swencki – comment #26:
      We should care about particles, “crumbs” or whatever, but is there a point where we can become tooooo scrupulous?
      Perhaps time to repeat that old story against over-scrupulosity, about a Belgian convent . . .

      Afterr the conventual Mass, the new young chaplain returns to the chapel, only to find the Abbess vigorously hoovering the altar and the carpet. Says Father to Revd.Mother, “Mother, mother, what are you doing? There might be Crumbs from the Host there.” “Father,” replies Mother Abbess, ” If He is clever enough to get in there, He is certainly clever enough to get out again.”
      John Henley

    2. @John Swencki – comment #26:
      FWIW, the Church has had a practical standard: visible to the naked eye. Which would be food enough for birds – and on occasion genuinely famished human beings. Not a standard worth spending effort pushing against; there are much more profitable issues to consider.

  17. The experts tell us that what Jesus used was actually semi-leavened bread. This still exists today, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and is now commonplace in the West as well. Just go down to your grocery store and buy some pitta bread. Takes care of John Swencki’s point about gnawing or chewing, and incidentally reduces the crumb problem too.

  18. Just for the record — I am very careful about crumbs or “residue” — I only break one of the larger matzoh for my own communion and those in the sanctuary. Small matzoh crackers are commercially available for the congregation. It would really be nice on this site if the hypersensitive would take the time to read through an entry in its entirety before making unsupported responses. No wonder the liturgical fetishism on this and the NLM site turns people utterly off to these matters.

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