**I wrote this letter two years ago, but the topic seems to be relevant again. Not being able to fully participate in the mass is isolating enough; hopefully this letter (and the included links) might alleviate, for some other person, the additional frustration and exhaustion of also having to educate people on what it all means.**
Friends, Reverends, Countrymen:
There are some things about celiac disease – and, for that matter, non-celiac gluten sensitivity – that we want you to know. It’s not a fad, it’s not a diet choice, and it’s not just a digestive issue. Accidentally ingesting gluten can cause a reaction including chronic fatigue, cloudiness, brain fog, joint pain, and headaches. Symptoms can be brought on by small quantities or even through skin contact. I can’t let my students play with play-doh anymore because no matter how careful I was, washing my hands after art and wiping the residue off the desks, I would still come home with an awful migraine due to the wheat in the dough.
So what does this have to do with participating in Mass? Many of you may be unaware of the Catholic Church’s official stance on wheat in the Eucharist. Canon 924 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which presents the requirements for validity of the matter to be consecrated, states that the bread must be wheaton. In 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith further ruled that hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist. Therefore, there is no such thing as gluten-free hosts in the Catholic Church. Trace amounts of wheat are actually required in order for the host to be considered compatible with the sacrament.
I will spare you my opinion on the decree that a gluten-free wafer is “incapable of becoming the Body of Christ” and that such changes could undermine “the faith in the very reality of God become man” (Father Edward McNamara, EWTN). For now, I am not concerned with challenging Catholic doctrine. I will respect the Church’s right to hold fast to the tradition of wheat. In return, I ask that you respect my right to decide what level of gluten content is safe for my body.
If a parishioner desires a low-gluten option, they may request permission from their Archdiocese to use a special host such as that designed by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Their low-gluten altar bread is tested at a level of 0.01%, or 100 parts per million. (To put that in perspective, the FDA requires items labeled as gluten-free to test below 20 parts per million. This is why the Benedictine hosts should never be advertised as gluten-free.) Catholic organizations report that these levels of gluten are considered to be safe for most people with celiac. However, that is a risk that must be assessed by each individual and their doctor.
Even low levels of wheat can cause a gluten reaction, especially if an individual is being repeatedly exposed to the matter, as is the case with daily or weekly Mass. Personally, I am not willing to take this risk. The only option I would consider is the truly gluten-free one: receiving in the species of the wine. Priests should be able to consecrate a small, separate chalice (without the commingling of the host) alongside the regular sacrament. Individuals with celiac can receive from this dedicated chalice, which should then be cleaned separately, not with the same cloth used on other vessels.
Similarly, if a parishioner does choose to receive a low-gluten host, it should be stored and handled separately from typical hosts. They will need a dedicated pyx and/or paten to contain it, and the Eucharistic minister should have a plan for distributing the sacrament to that individual before touching regular wheat hosts.
This requires conscious planning on the part of ministers and parishioners. I know it might seem like a lot to think about right now, but open the conversation. Don’t let anyone else go through the embarrassment and isolation that I experienced in Catholic churches, where I was told in both words and actions that there was no place for me. Even if you think that there is no one at your church affected by Celiac, extend the invitation. Please, make space for us at the table.