HOWELL, Mich. — First Communion season is upon us, and Maureen Wittmann still recalls the first Communion of her son, Gregory, three years ago. Gregory suffers from celiac disease.

Gregory, then 7, was the only child there who didn’t receive a consecrated host from the priest. Instead, he drank from the chalice.

Celiac disease causes intolerance to gluten, an essential part of wheat.

Gregory’s family had known since he was 2 that he was a celiac sufferer, and when first Communion time approached, they explained the situation to their priest.

“He was great about it and didn’t think it was a big deal,” said the home-schooling mother of seven children. “‘We’ll just give him the Precious Blood,’ he told us.”

On first Communion day, the priest made it a teaching moment for the entire parish, as he explained how Christ is fully present in the Precious Blood as well as in the host.

It’s been a little more challenging for Greg at the family’s new parish since they moved last year. “The second or third week we were there, I saw part of the presider’s host floating in the Precious Blood,” explained Wittmann.

Those with celiac disease not only have to abstain from ingesting wheat, but also must avoid coming into contact with wheat. Drinking from a chalice in which the celebrant’s host is commingled or from the same chalice others drink from after they receive a traditional wheat host presents a problem.

“Greg can’t eat pepperoni from the top of a pizza because it’s contaminated,” said Wittmann. “Any amount of gluten can damage his intestines; I don’t want to set him up for lymphoma or any other diseases.”

Some may think Wittmann may be overreacting, but the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research has found that celiacs are more likely to be afflicted with problems relating to malabsorption, including osteoporosis, tooth enamel defects, central and peripheral nervous system disease, pancreatic disease, internal hemorrhaging, organ disorders (gall bladder, liver and spleen) and gynecological disorders.

Untreated celiac disease has also been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer, especially intestinal lymphoma.


Low-Gluten Host

The Church teaches that when a priest consecrates the Eucharist, the bread and wine become, in substance, the body and blood of Christ — but the characteristics of bread and wine remain and act upon the body as they would if they were not consecrated.

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Transubstantiation means the change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the body of Christ and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of his blood. This change is brought about in the Eucharistic Prayer through the efficacy of the word of Christ and by the action of the Holy Spirit. However, the outward characteristics of bread and wine, that is the ‘Eucharistic species,’ remain unaltered.”

Gluten is a type of protein found in some grass-related grains that give bread elasticity.

According to a study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, almost one out of every 133 Americans suffers from celiac disease. That means that there may be one celiac, or more, in every Catholic parish with more than 100 members in the United States.

That celiac may even be the priest of the parish or the bishop of the diocese, like the coadjutor archbishop of Cincinnati, Dennis Schnurr.

Viable options exist for those who suffer to participate in the Eucharist, but much confusion and some ignorance still remains. What alternatives are there? And how can the Church and her priests better serve parishioners with the disease?

Wittmann has had to watch carefully which side the celebrant’s chalice goes to, then direct Greg to a different chalice. But that changed when the family discovered a low-gluten host developed by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Mo.

“I buy the new hosts from the sisters, put one in a pyx and take it up to the altar before Mass for father,” Wittmann said.

Because the celebrant handles the traditional wheat host, he cannot touch Greg’s host. So he drops the host from the pyx into Greg’s hands.

But the process doesn’t run as smoothly when the Wittmanns visit a new church and don’t get a chance to make accommodations with the priest ahead of time. Then Greg has to take his chances with a chalice — unless the Precious Blood runs out.

“One thing we trained him to do was a spiritual communion at times, like a few Sundays ago at a different church, when there was no Precious Blood left once we got up there,” said Wittmann. “He just asks Jesus to come into his heart.”

The Benedictines’ low-gluten host — 10 years in the making — is the only one approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because it is made of 100% wheat starch with enough gluten to effect bread.

When tested by an independent agency, the host had only .01% — or 100 parts per million — gluten. Reportedly, most celiacs would have to eat 270 such hosts in one day to become ill.

“We advise people to check with their doctors before trying our host, but we have had no report to us that after consuming our breads anyone became sick,” said Benedictine Sister Sophia Becker, assistant manager of the altar bread department. “Still, some people choose not to use it.”

The hosts last four to six months when refrigerated or frozen. In 2004, their first year of sales, only 2,800 bags of 20 hosts were purchased. Now, the sisters have 3,700 patrons and sold 9,000 bags in 2008.

Barbara Coughlin, 56, a medical consultant for the state of Connecticut, said she thanks God for the Benedictine Sisters every time she receives their low-gluten host at Mass. “Once you are deprived of something, you have so much more appreciation for it,” she said. “I never take it for granted.”

Diagnosed nine years ago, the Kensington, Conn., resident said that the worst part of her diagnosis was not receiving the body of Christ. “Celiac disease is very socially isolating; it makes you feel like a spiritual leper,” she explained.

Coughlin said that when the sisters came out with the low-gluten host, it made all the difference in the world for her. “Once I felt fully in communion with the Church, it was easier for me to accept my celiac disease,” she said. “I truly, truly believe this is a work of the Holy Spirit.”


Celiac Bishop Defends Wheat

Coadjutor Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati was diagnosed with celiac disease eight years ago, but was symptomatic for 30 years. The 60-year-old bishop uses a low-gluten host in his private chapel for daily Mass and ingests a small portion of a wheat host — about a 1/4-inch square — on most public occasions. Any more would cause a negative physical reaction.

Despite the fact that wheat makes him sick, Archbishop Schnurr still defends its presence in the host. “The Church must be faithful to the matter and form of the sacraments as given to her by Christ. If the matter or form is changed, we no longer have the sacrament,” he explained in an e-mail to the Register.

The validity of the matter — bread and wine — to be consecrated as the Eucharist is defined in Canon 925 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law; the host for Mass must be made only of wheat.

According to Redemptionis Sacramentum, issued in March of 2004, the sacrament is invalidated if any substitutes to bread and wine are used. Paragraph 48 of the document states:

“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.”

Archbishop Schnurr offers some words of consolation. “In cases where a person cannot ingest the smallest amount of wheat or alcohol, I have reminded them of the great consolation that St. Thérèse of Lisieux experienced in spiritual communion,” he wrote. “In the terminal stages of her illness, she was unable to ingest any nutrition, including the holy Eucharist. Still, she expressed consolation, in that she knew that her desire alone was enough to bring Jesus to her.”

Annamarie Adkins writes

from St. Paul, Minnesota.