Special hosts allow gluten-sensitive parishioners, priests to receive Eucharist

  • Written by Michelle Bruno
  • Published in Local
Low-gluten hosts made by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration sit next to a pyx, which can be used to keep the hosts separate from regular Communion hosts. Photo: Michelle Bruno Low-gluten hosts made by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration sit next to a pyx, which can be used to keep the hosts separate from regular Communion hosts. Photo: Michelle Bruno

BELLEVUE – When Father Gary Zender raises his presider’s host during the eucharistic prayer at St. Louise de Marillac Parish, no one can tell it’s a low-gluten host.

It’s still made of wheat, as required by church teaching, but its gluten content has been reduced to less than 10 parts per million.

It’s been a relief for Father Zender, who was diagnosed in 2006 as being gluten-sensitive, like his sister. He began suffering serious allergies 20 years ago, but no treatment had worked.

“At Mass it was unbearable,” Father Zender said. “My symptoms would be worse when using my public speaking voice and while singing. When trying to preside at Mass, it was extremely distracting.”

Since his diagnosis, Father Zender has been avoiding gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley). Though it has greatly improved his allergies, he said they are never completely gone.

Father Zender isn’t alone. Four gluten-related autoimmune disorders have been identified, including celiac disease, which the FDA estimates affects 3 million Americans. Another 18 million are estimated to have gluten sensitivity, according to the advocacy group Beyond Celiac.

Awareness of gluten-related disorders is growing at parishes around the archdiocese — some now offer low-gluten hosts so parishioners and visitors don’t have to forgo receiving the Eucharist.

“It’s a matter of parishes being aware of this need of parishioners, just like wheelchair access and listening devices; we need to provide access to the sacraments,” said Corinna Laughlin, pastoral assistant for liturgy at St. James Cathedral in Seattle.

Low-gluten hostHolly Renz, pastoral assistant for liturgy at Holy Spirit Parish in Kent, places a pyx containing low-gluten hosts onto the corporal to prepare for Mass. The hosts are kept separate because mingling them with gluten hosts can sicken people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Photo: Michelle Bruno

Going to extra lengths

St. James Cathedral began offering low-gluten hosts six years ago, when some parish children needed them for their first Communion, Laughlin said.

“We became aware of other families and individuals that needed them,” and now 20 to 25 low-gluten hosts are distributed at the cathedral’s weekend Masses, she said.

St. James prints instructions in the bulletin so visitors and parishioners can find the designated place to receive the special host. One minister at each Mass is assigned to distribute only low-gluten hosts, to avoid cross-contamination, Laughlin said.

Cross-contamination is a big deal, according to Lydia Kunzler, a St. Louise parishioner who was diagnosed with celiac disease after 10 years of seeking a reason for her symptoms. If she consumes any amount of gluten over 20 ppm, her small intestine will be damaged. So mixing low-gluten hosts with regular hosts must be avoided, and those handling the hosts should wash their hands first, according to Laughlin.

The chance of cross-contamination can also make it risky for those with celiac disease to receive from the cup, which in any case is not available at every Mass.

“I can only take wine if I’m the first one to the wine,” Kunzler said. “Pieces [of the host] might get in. It would be really bad.”

That means going to extra lengths to receive Communion.

To ensure her safety, Kunzler buys her own hosts and has her own pyx to hold them. Before heading to Mass, she places a host in her pyx; once at church, she puts the pyx in a special basket that is brought up to the altar. At Communion, the sacristan hands Kunzler her pyx, and she handles the consecrated host herself.

“There’s so many who think it’s just a fad,” Kunzler said. “But it’s not a fad for people like us. We literally cannot have gluten.”

Justin Shaw, a St. Louise parishioner and sixth-grader at Eastside Catholic Middle School in Sammamish, has received a low-gluten host since his first Communion. Like Kunzler, he brings his pyx to Mass at St. Louise and adds it to the basket. He would bring his pyx to Eastside Catholic, but because the school only has occasional Masses, “it’s hard to remember,” Justin said.

When visiting other parishes, Kunzler said, it’s a challenge not knowing if they offer low-gluten hosts or what the protocol is if they do.

Low-gluten hostFather Gary Zender elevates his low-gluten presider’s host during Mass at St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Bellevue. Father Zender has needed a low-gluten host since 2006. Photo: Lynette Basta

Hosts without gluten are invalid

Years ago at Holy Spirit Parish in Kent, there was some confusion about whether a host could be free of all gluten, said Holly Renz, pastoral assistant for liturgy. Then in 2003, “the Vatican came out with guidelines, which made it much easier to know what to do,” she said. Under those guidelines, hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid for celebrating the Eucharist.

So Holy Spirit Parish, like St. Louise, orders its low-gluten hosts from Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Missouri. Renz, whose daughter has celiac disease, is the only one at Holy Spirit Parish to handle the low-gluten hosts before Mass, using a dedicated pyx for them. “If there’s any doubt about a pyx, I wash it out first,” she said.

A handful of parishioners at Holy Spirit receive low-gluten hosts; visitors needing a low-gluten host check in with the ushers. Father Raymond Cleaveland, Holy Spirit’s priest administrator, distributes the low-gluten hosts in a regular Communion line to each person who has requested it.

“If only one person needs it, I want to provide it,” Renz said. “We tell people that the Eucharist is at the heart of what we do. It’s why we come, to receive Jesus in that way,” she said. “Yes, a person can do a spiritual communion, but as people we have bodies, and we need the physical, tangible presence.”

Kunzler said it would be “really hard” if she couldn’t receive the Eucharist. So having her own pyx and hosts is helpful when going on a cruise or visiting another parish, when she can’t be assured of having access to low-gluten hosts.

Being gluten-sensitive, Father Zender said, is an annoyance in life and a reminder of his own weakness. “This is a struggle that I have, and it makes me more sensitive to those who have struggles greater than mine.”

Father Zender said he is grateful for the sisters who make the low-gluten hosts, for the bishops who offer the option, and that he can receive the Eucharist under both forms.

“It is a very precious gift and if I weren’t able to take Communion at all it would be a huge loss,” he said.

Learn more about low-gluten hosts

Read the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral response regarding low-gluten hosts.

Learn best practices for handling low-gluten hosts, from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.