Communion hosts available for gluten-intolerant worshipers
January 18, 2012
Communion hosts available for gluten-intolerant worshipers
Stuart Heyes receives a low-gluten Communion wafer from the Rev. Bob Clark… (Corey R. Minkanic, for the Chicago, Chicago Tribune)

More churches trying to accommodate those sickened by wheat

By Chris McNamara, Special to the Tribune

After Stuart Heyes was diagnosed with celiac disease last year, he learned that a gluten-free diet would prevent the pain he experienced after meals, which he described as "like the food is having a battle in your gut."

But his diagnosis threatened to create a battle in his soul: The hosts used for Holy Communion at most churches are made with wheat, which contains gluten.

Now, however, when the 62-year-old Burr Ridge man and other gluten-intolerant parishioners step up for Communion at St. Cletus Catholic Church in La Grange, they can receive special hosts with very small amounts of gluten.

The low-gluten hosts and gluten-free hosts served at some Christian churches are a blessing for those with celiac disease. In the past, they have had to stay in their seats while their peers received the sacrament, or perhaps they skipped the host and took only the wine.

According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, the autoimmune condition affects 1 in 100 Americans and can strike at any stage of life. When these people eat foods containing gluten, which is found in wheat and many other grains, it creates a toxic reaction in their bodies, damaging their small intestine and preventing proper absorption of food.

In many cases, individual worshipers are buying Communion hosts, which are consecrated during services and then served to them during Communion. Fifty percent of those making purchases online from Gluten-free Hosts are individuals, says co-owner Lucy DeLaat, whose business sells zero-gluten and low-gluten hosts.

But Chicagoland churches have been getting up to speed. And Roman Catholic parishes, which adhere to the Vatican's guidelines requiring the presence of wheat in Communion hosts, are being prompted to address the issue.

"Over the last number of years, there has been a rise in awareness of people with gluten intolerance and a subsequent rise in parishes asking us about low-gluten hosts and the guidelines for their use," says Todd Williamson, director for the Office for Divine Worship with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

And that accounts for the other 50 percent of purchases from parishes, such as St. Cletus, that have begun offering parishioners specialized hosts.

The act of Communion harks back to the Last Supper, where Jesus blessed and shared bread with his followers.

"It's because Christ used bread that the (Catholic) church still does," Williamson said. "So in order to maintain the tradition, which Christ established, bread used for Eucharist must be made from wheat. This is universally held to — it's not just in Chicago, or the United States. This is worldwide."

"The problem is alienating Catholics who want to participate in Communion," said DeLaat, who sells low-gluten hosts that adhere to Vatican policy about wheat to Roman Catholic parishes and potato-based, zero-gluten hosts to churches of some other Christian denominations that also serve Communion. "This is about churches preventing alienation."

Heyes receives the special hosts when he attends services three times a week, and as a deacon-in-training, he assists the priests at St. Cletus and personally prepares the hosts before Mass.

"It's easy for me because I'm assisting the process," he says.

For the past year, he has ensured that the low-gluten wafers are handled separately from the more traditional hosts, lest they be cross-contaminated. Under Heyes' watch, they are placed in a pyx — a metallic, ceremonial chamber — that is placed alongside the regular hosts that the priest consecrates during the Mass.

The low-gluten hosts aren't suitable for all. Katie Barrett, of River Forest, has gluten intolerance and considers herself in the middle of the celiac spectrum.

"I completely appreciate their effort, but I can't eat them," she says of the hosts. "I would still get sick."

While some with the disease wouldn't set foot in an Italian restaurant for fear of flour in the air, she will order gluten-free dishes off the menu.

"But if I eat just a couple bites of bread, I'll be sick for days," says Barrett, 38. "In the beginning this was a major change in everything about my life, but now 15 years later it has gotten easier."

However, when she joins her parents for Mass at Old St. Patrick's Parish, she passes on the low-gluten hosts the church offers, though she does accept the wine.

Practices — like demand for low-gluten or no-gluten wafers — vary among churches. DeLaat, who was in Chicago in April 2011 pitching her product at a church-wares convention, recalls a recent first Communion ceremony in Toronto in which a half-dozen of the youngsters who were part of the ceremony could not receive the hosts. The spirit was willing; the young bodies had celiac disease.

But society at large is better understanding the needs of gluten-intolerant individuals, prompted by people such as Barrett, who as a med school student at the University of Maryland made a presentation to her peers about her struggles with celiac disease.

Her lecture, she said, sparked a heated debate with a fellow student — and fellow Catholic — about Communion wafers. Her adversary believed that hosts must mimic wheat-rich bread in accordance with history.

"I always enjoy hearing both sides of an argument," said Barrett. "But it took me by surprise that someone who doesn't have to worry about what's in a host would worry about what's in a host."

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