Take and Eat

I am grateful to my friend, colleague, and sister in Christ, Kathleen Basi, for agreeing to share her eucharistic story in this guest post on PrayTell blog, along with the letter to the U.S. bishops that her story prompted. –Alan Hommerding

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In November of 2021, my developmentally disabled teenager was diagnosed with celiac disease. This was a big deal for an Italian foodie family. It took a few days even to process that this would disrupt communion with the parish family—communion in the little-c meaning of the word. How does one explain to a kid with Down syndrome, attending Mass in Covid world, without the cup, that she no longer gets to be like everyone else in church? Now, her parents have to have long conversations about cross-contamination with priests and Eucharistic ministers before every Mass. Now, she has to receive a weird, small host out of a pyx from a different minister, instead of the patens, in a line, like everyone else. And it’ll be a year’s worth of blood tests before we’ll know if even that is truly safe. The following letter came out of that slow awakening.

Dear Pope Francis and the bishops of the Catholic Church of the United States,

I am writing to you as a lifelong Catholic, formed and active in liturgical music ministry and committed to living and deepening my faith. I am writing to ask during this Synod on Synodality, that you and the bishops of the world reconsider the prohibition on gluten-free Communion hosts.

Last November, my teenage daughter, who has Down syndrome, was diagnosed with celiac disease.

As we began transitioning her to a gluten-free diet, I was astonished, and then angry, to discover that although gluten-free hosts are readily available, they have been specifically disallowed by canon law.

Online resources and priests I have talked to have told me that the reason gluten is “required” is because our sacraments must follow the form in which Jesus gave them to us.

However, the Gospels say nothing about wheat or gluten. Scripture says only that Jesus took bread and wine and said “do this in memory of me.”

There are many forms of bread, including those without gluten. In fact, as I searched online for Passover regulations, I found that, at least in modern times, Passover bread may be any one of five grains: wheat, spelt, rye, barley, or oats. Oats are gluten free.

Even if we accept the assumption that Jesus’ last supper bread was wheat, the wheat used today is not what he used. Modern varieties are vastly different. If we have to use what Jesus used, why aren’t we limited to a variety that at least existed at the time of the Last Supper?

The answer, of course, is that it is impractical. It would be an undue burden to insist upon using varieties that are no longer grown. Whatever kind of bread Jesus used, he used because it was what was practical in the place and time where he was.

The Church has already made this and other adaptations to what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Individual hosts, reduced to two ingredients only, have been declared the norm for Catholic liturgies. Substantial or “real” bread, such as Jesus would have shared with his disciples, is also impractical for use in large assemblies.

But if these adaptations to Jesus’ practice have already been made without jeopardizing the validity of the sacrament, the Church should be able to accommodate celiacs as well.

I appreciate the allowances made in the letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger for extremely low-gluten hosts. I am aware that regulations also allow for a separate cup to be offered to those with celiac disease.

But when many places (especially post-pandemic) only offer the host, a cup-only solution serves to separate a person with celiac disease from all his or her fellow worshipers. It serves to divide, rather than unite, the Body of Christ.

If we truly believe that the Eucharist is the source and summit, and our spiritual food for the work of discipleship, then we should not be putting obstacles in the way of people receiving it.

This is why I am reaching out during this time of preparation for the National Eucharistic Congress in the U.S. Canon law has been changed by the Pope in recent history. I have no doubt that was done in consultation with the bishops of the world. I am asking the leaders of our Church to go back to the base assumption upon which the law concerning gluten is based. I beg you to consider: Is this really a necessary burden to impose?

God bless you in your ministry.

Sincerely,

Kathleen Basi

Author and liturgical composer Kathleen M. Basi is a mother of three boys and one chromosomally-gifted daughter. Her music for Catholic worship is available through GIA and OCP, including “Come, All You Thirsty,” the Association of Catholic Publishers’ 2022 Song of the Year. She is a published novelist and the founder of intentional-catholic.com.

6 comments

  1. Yes, and yes.

    In a similar vein, the scholars tell us that Jesus did not use unleavened bread at the Last Supper. He would have used semi-leavened bread, which has not changed in over 2000 years — in other words the pita bread that is a staple in the Middle East and increasingly a part of normal western diets too.

    If we are serious about bread that actually looks like bread, rather than plastic discs (and cf. GIRM 321), this is one possible way to go, but even with unleavened bread it is possible. Yes, there would be logistical issues, but nothing insoluble if the will is there. The number of parishes with a bread-baking ministry diminished greatly during the pandemic. Now would be a good time to revitalize it.

    1. Then again, the issue of leaven doesn’t really pertain directly to celiac disease (except perhaps in a negative correlation: the grains that can be effectively leavened by yeast contain gluten – for example, while yeasts can digest sugars in other grains to produce gas, the grains lack the protein structure to trap the gas and rise).

  2. Proud to call Kathleen a friend. Thank you for raising this up, Alan! May Catholic bishops, who hold leadership positions by virtue of their ordinations, choose to walk closely—and with open hearts—with people in this situation and other situations they do not know firsthand.

  3. In the forthcoming Eucharistic Missal that the Old Catholic body I am associated with is releasing for use beginning Advent 2023, guidance is provided for low-gluten hosts.

    For those who find them to still be incompatible with their disease process, we find this: “…a bread which is produced from a non-glutinous grain, is objectively bread, and which does not crumble is permitted. Grains approved for such usage include amaranth, buckwheat, oats, and rice. Starches made from tubers, nuts, and beans are significantly outside the scope of bread flour, and would not be contemplated for such use.”

  4. No obstacles are being placed in anyone’s way, but you seem to be imagining an obstacle. The chalice can be made available for anyone who cannot tolerate even a low-gluten host, so even the most severe celiacs are already accommodated. It’s not divisive, even if you choose to misinterpret it that way. The whole sacramental Christ is present under each species separately. Alcoholics can’t receive wine from the chalice, so should the Church change to allow grape juice as valid matter too? For alcoholic priests there is mustum, which has undergone a minimal amount of fermentation, just as low-gluten hosts have a minimal amount of gluten. This is a total non-issue.

    1. Just an observation: why do people seem so concerned that everyone gets a piece of bread without showing equal concern about at least the opportunity to share the wine? I wonder if the removal of the chalice from the laity in the course of the Middle Ages has made us insensitive to the fact that Jesus said Take and drink! with the same force of Take and eat!
      A story I have told before: at a funeral the visiting presider told us acolytes that there would not be both species because it was too “inconvenient.” I was the one who had to tell him that distribution had already been organized and both species was the parish custom. What I really wanted to ask him was which other of Jesus’s direct commands could I choose to ignore because it was inconvenient.

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