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The Holy Ghost in a Gluten-Free Host

By July 12, 2017 10 Comments

When I was five years old I would line up my stuffed animals into pews. I would grab bread and juice from the kitchen and I would administer the Sacrament to my stuffed animal congregation. Even at five years old I knew something special happened in this moment at church. At that time I went to a Roman Catholic Church. My parents taught me to carefully fold my hands together so that I didn’t drop the wafer. If I dropped the wafer I was dropping the body of Jesus. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I had to be careful. They said I could have the priest feed me the wafer if I was scared of dropping it, but that just felt creepy. So I learned to carefully fold my hands together and let the wafer dissolve in my mouth. Jesus lived in that box on the altar and was released when the priest opened the pretty shiny box.

Fast-forward, through different spiritual questions that were more alive in me than some of my friends as a teenager and young adult, I go from Roman Catholic to being ordained as a RCA minister. A RCA minister who would serve communion weekly if my church would allow. The table is still very special to me.

In seminary I never learned about the theology of gluten. I must have missed that class. I didn’t know Catholics believed that the host must contain gluten in order for it really to be Jesus. I thought bread, in whatever form, was a way to communicate the grace of God. Wouldn’t we want to serve that in any way we could? That’s why it was surprising to me to learn from, the progressive(ish), mercy focused Pope, that a gluten free wafer is a no-go.

In his letter to the Bishops on the bread and wine, the Pope said:

“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. Hosts should obviously be made by those who are not only distinguished by their integrity, but also skilled in making them and furnished with suitable tools” (n. 48)

I value the theological minutiae such as preserving the integrity of wheat in the Holy Meal, but surely if gluten causes reaction wouldn’t we want to make accommodations to support the one who is receiving the Sacrament of grace? For Reformed folks, especially those of us who enjoy Calvin, union with Christ is our heartbeat. One of the places we find union with Christ is at the table of our Lord where we are raised up in the spiritual presence of Christ. If gluten-free wafers help you find union with Christ, then a gluten-free wafers are what I will serve. This is a pastoral concern. Let grace be abundant, in gluten and non-gluten host alike.

Jes Kast

The Reverend Jes Kast is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament and serves West End Collegiate Church as their Associate Pastor.


  • Monica R Brands says:

    I saw that article on the Catholic Church’s refusal to do gluten-free wafers this week as well, thanks for writing about it. The implications really are incredibly troubling — so Jesus’ body and blood is not shed for people with celiac disease? Jesus’ body and blood make people physically ill? I hope the Catholic church gets significant pushback on this.

  • Dr. Jim Payton says:

    I’m with you on all these points — union with Christ, the desire for weekly Eucharist, and the surprise that Pope Francis failed to make room for people with gluten problems still to receive the body of the Lord sacramentally without fear of allergic reactions. Thanks for this post.

  • Jes Kast says:

    Sought more research today. Here is a Catholic journalist describing more for us.

  • aboksu says:

    I have received communion here at home in Taiwan where the host was sweet potato, and the cup contained Oolong Tea. I have served communion here using a particular kind of rice-flour cake for the host, and mulberry juice in the cup. No, I’m not Roman Catholic. It’s not a matter of what is physically in the host or the cup, it is not a matter of whether the celebrant carries a Y chromosome or not. It’s all about union with Christ.

    • Edward J Healey says:

      I guess you are asking us to question whether Jesus knew what he was doing when using bread and wine to become his very body and blood? Could there be a significant distinction between union with Christ effected by our desire and prayer and true communion with Christ which is actually his work not ours through the reception of his very body and blood which is authentically available to us when the prescribed words are prayed by an ordained priest over the prescribed elements of bread and wine ? I am giving the benefit of the doubt to the latter!

  • Alberto says:

    As a reformed thinker, I agree that my sensibilities were a bit thrown off by this decision. However, in order to understand it well I think that we have to step out of our tradition and frame of thinking and inhabit a different one in order to do justice to what’s going on. I have discovered four things relevant to this matter that are worth pondering: 1)the Pope’s decision shouldn’t be a surprise since all he did was reaffirm a RCC policy that has been around long before he became Pope. 2) According to centuries old RCC sacramental theology, it is not necessary to take BOTH the wine and the bread in order to receive the full grace of Christ; if a person can’t have one or the other they can still participate in the grace (not the experience of grace but real transformative grace) 3) The RCC does offer a low-gluten bread option (<.01%) which for most people with gluten issues will be safe 4) One of the emphasis that we protestants don't have in our doctrines is the universality of the "one" body of Christ-probably in light of our overemphasis on individualism and the ease with which we fragment and divide. Unity of ritual engenders a unity of a people who share in "one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" and in this case one bread which unites all across time and space.

    • Hi Alberto,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Wanted to delve into point number 2 a little more…

      There are obviously things I disagree with strongly regarding RCC theology (ordination of women, transubstantiation, LGBTQ inclusion, etc.), and it could simply be that I will continue to disagree with the RCC on this matter as well.

      I’m trying to understand the INTENT of the RCC by saying someone who cannot take gluten can still receive the “full grace of Jesus” by only partaking of the cup… versus the IMPACT of what that action actually communicates in witness. It seems to me that it could communicate two things…

      1.) That if the bread is not actually necessary to receive full grace, it would then mean that it is either a “discardable extra” (not needed by ANYONE) or something EXTRA special that only some can receive (both troubling possibilities), and…

      2.) If the host does indeed have a specific purpose and meaning (and as a Reformed minister I would say YES the bread does have meaning), what does it say to people who are gluten-intolerant if they cannot receive the full means of grace? Yes, I understand the RCC church says they can get full grace in the cup, but I’m trying to understand communicated IMPACT of the matter.

      I have yet to see anything (unless I missed it) about WHY gluten is REQUIRED theologically. Is wheat no longer wheat if it does not have gluten? The way I see it, the body of Christ is no longer fully the body if it lacks people who are gluten-intolerant… and if I believe that communion is our union with Christ and with one another, then it would seem to communicate exclusion.

      Thanks for your thoughts and willingness to read mine.

      • Alberto says:

        Hi Jonathan, those are excellent questions. As I mentioned I am not an RCC scholar but a Reformed one, so I’ll try to answer from a position of non-expertise to the best of my understanding.

        1)The full grace of Christ is found in “both” the wine and the bread such that taking either of them suffices. If this was not the case, then people in hospital beds (often people on the verge of dying) who are not able to intake any type of solid food would not be able to partake in the full sacrament of grace. You see, that grace is fully found on both the wine and cup is a long-existing pastoral answer to this issue. It is ironic that anyone would think in light of this controversy that the RCC somehow is stripping the bread of its fullest meaning and importance, since, if anything, the stringency and care shown in this and other matters pertaining to the handling, making, and distributing of this eucharistic element shows that they have but the utmost respect and veneration for the bread- not just some abstract, philosophical, memorialist meaning like we protestants often attach, but real physical, tangible, and spiritual meaning meaning.

        2) I can think of two primary meanings of the “Eucharist Meal” which can be applied equally to the bread and the wine. First, the reception of the real body and blood of Christ which in turns makes the body of each partaking believer a quite literal temple for the Lord. Second, that having Christ in us we become united into a single family. The second, I would imagine is the most problematic for us protestants who see this decision with exclusivist overtones. But perhaps here a fine distinction between between exclusivism and unity is needed. My understanding is that for the RCC gluten less bread is not bread at all, it is altogether a different substance in the same way that tofu is not just a different kind of animal meat but simply a different substance altogether. Partaking of bread, and not any other imitation, witnesses to unity- each RCC believer across the globe and across millennia partakes of one same bread and of one same Christ and becomes part of one same body of Christ. This is the theological warrant for the gluten- indeed its not really about the gluten but about wether the thing can be called “bread” or not. A gluten-intolerant believer can then rejoice that despite the fact that in this fallen world they are unable to ingest bread, they are nonetheless by means of the wine able to participate in this eucharistic meal and be a part of the body of Christ (or even participate through some of the low-gluten bread options I mentioned earlier which would not harm the vast majority of gluten-resistant folks).

        As far as communicated impact goes, I presume that its going to communicate all sorts of confusing things to us protestants who like you mention don’t believe in transubstantiation and in their sacramental theology. However, since the RCC is most concern for the spiritual discipleship and fitting participation of their members (while welcoming all inquiries from everyone else) I don’t think they have much to worry about.

        I apologize to any RCC colleagues who might read this and spot a misunderstanding on my part, as I mentioned I’m just a listener in the conversation trying to sort out what’s what.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    As a person who is gluten intolerant (I have Celiac Sprue), it struck me that the two articles today are about communion. Some time ago I was in the circle spoken about in the first article. As a guest with CS, I did not experience the circle being complete. I had to abstain from the bread and the cup. Neither of them is safe for me (because of the tincture).

    It grieives me and puzzles me too that the RCC has so rigid a theological stance on the need for wheat, whether with our without gluten (I know of no GF wheat). I am very pleased to say that in our congregation (Calvin CRC) we serve gluten free bread to all the members (there are some who don’t like the taste!). I appreciate this policy because I am sure there is no contamination and we do really all share in the one loaf.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I have celiac disease. Often I “fake” consuming the bread at communion. I have many stories, good, bad and ugly about experiences at the Table. My favorite though, is what my communion preparers did to me here at the Hillsborough Reformed Church at Millstone (NJ) where I serve as pastor. One Sunday they put a special puffed rice piece next to the bread for me. When I popped it in my mouth, I got an explosion of flavor. It was apple cinnamon. I glanced over at the woman (Kathy) who prepared communion and she was glowing with pleasure at my surprised reaction. I know Jesus smiled at that innovation.
    Okay. My worst experience? Early on after my diagnosis of celiac disease I was a delegate to General Synod. The officiant kindly remarked that gluten free bread was available for those who were gluten intolerant. Up on the stage in front of hundreds of people, I made it known to the person serving communion that I had celiac disease. He curtly said, “Stand here!” and pointed off to the side. I stood on the stage as hundreds of people were served the supper. The sacrament was over and he saw me and approached me and said, “What are you doing here?” I explained. He gruffly pointed to someone on the side to serve me gluten free bread. I never go it. The sacrament was over. I was mortified. In some settings I am still reluctant in some settings to partake. I will not suffer embarrassment in a worship setting like that.

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