Take this Bread

Sept. 23-29, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 33
Take this Bread
By Catholic News Service
A magazine devoted to people with celiac disease has endorsed a low-gluten Communion host made by Catholic nuns in Missouri as “perfectly safe” for celiac sufferers.

The quarterly magazine, Gluten-Free Living, came out shortly before a public controversy emerged over a New Jersey mother’s fight to change the Catholic rules for such hosts. The church requires bread made from wheat, containing at least some gluten, for the celebration of the Eucharist. Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, barley and oats that binds the baked bread. In people who have the genetic disorder known as celiac disease or celiac sprue, gluten causes an immune reaction that can lead to severe damage of the intestinal lining and a number of other health problems ranging from chronic diarrhea and anemia to osteoporosis.

In the magazine, a nun-pharmacist wrote that she analyzed the low-gluten hosts produced by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Mo. Her conclusion: “On average, a whole host could contain no more than 37 micrograms of gluten.” Two experts from the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research told the magazine that a celiac sufferer could consume that much gluten daily with no ill effects. A microgram is a millionth of a gram, or about 35 billionths of an ounce, so 37 micrograms would be about 1.3 millionths of an ounce.

The author of the magazine article, Sister Jeanne Patricia Crowe, is a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and professor at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania. She is a doctor of clinical pharmacy and is on Gluten-Free Living’s editorial advisory board. She described how the Benedictine nuns came up with the recipe for the bread, using a blend of two types of wheat starch, and how its gluten content was tested. “The analysis was performed by the American Institute of Baking using the ELISA — enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay — method,” she said. That test cannot detect gluten below 0.01 percent — one part per 10,000. The institute was unable to detect any gluten in the hosts, she said, so the Benedictines have labeled the hosts as 0.01 percent gluten, reflecting the bottom limit of the testing capacity as the maximum gluten the hosts could possibly have. “Realistically speaking,” Sister Crowe said, “the actual gluten content is most likely lower because no gluten could be detected by this assay.”

In an editorial on Sister Crowe’s article, Gluten-Free Living editor Ann Whelan said she easily understands the concern of Catholics with the disease, and especially parents of children who have it, about the church’s insistence on at least some gluten in hosts. “To help Catholic celiacs keep their concern in perspective, I went to the experts to ask them if it would be safe to consume a host that might contain up to 37 micrograms of gluten,” Whelan wrote. She said Dr. Carlo Catassi, a co-director of the Maryland research center who recently presented his findings on toxicity of gluten traces at an international meeting on celiac disease, told her, “This dose would have no clinical or histological effect even if taken on a regular daily basis.” “That means it would not cause symptoms or damage tissues,” Whelan said. She quoted the center’s medical director, Alessio Fasano, as saying the hosts were “perfectly safe” for celiac sufferers.

“It’s the daily exposure to gluten that counts” for those with celiac disease, the editorial said. “The best current information shows that 10 milligrams a day should be safe.” Since 10 milligrams is 10,000 micrograms, someone consuming no other gluten would have to eat 270 of the low-gluten wafers a day to reach that threshold, it said. Gluten-Free Living is published in Hawthorne, N.Y. In a telephone interview with Catholic News Service Aug. 27 Sister Crowe described the low-gluten hosts as “very, very light” wafers, about an inch in diameter, yellowish and weighing a little more than one-quarter gram each. “They remind you of a bubbly potato chip,” she said. Since they are handmade, they vary slightly in size and shape. She said three members of her own religious community have celiac disease, so they were among the first to start using the hosts when they became available less than a year ago. The Benedictine convent’s hosts are the only ones the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Liturgy has approved as a true low-gluten wheat bread suitable for liturgical use. The controversy this summer in New Jersey was sparked by a woman who tried to get the church to let her daughter receive first Communion using a host made of rice flour, which has no gluten in it. A similar case arose three years ago in Boston, when a Catholic family joined the Methodist Church after the parents were told a rice host would not be permitted for their daughter with celiac disease. Both disputes drew international news coverage.

Until recently, celiac disease was not easily diagnosed except in the most severe cases and it was regarded as rare, affecting no more than about one in 2,500 people in the United States, with slightly higher rates in Britain, Ireland and northern Europe. In 2003, however, a coordinated study of more than 13,000 Americans by the Center for Celiac Research and other research institutions around the country found that, even after excluding people with possible symptoms of the disease and people who are related to identified celiac sufferers, one out of every 133 Americans has antibodies and intestinal lesions consistent with celiac disease.

To order or get more information about the Missouri Benedictines’ low-gluten hosts, call: (800) 223-2772; e-mail: altarbreads@benedictinesisters.org; or write to: Benedictine Sisters Altar Bread Department, 31970 State Highway P, Clyde, MO 64432.
A Host of Issues

Increasing Diagnosis of Celiac Disease Raises Awareness of Special Needs

By Eileen Jevis / SUN staff writer

Imagine having a disease that requires one to read vigilantly the labels of every food product one consumes. Imagine having to be cautious about what type of lipstick one buys, reading the ingredients in a tube of toothpaste or not being able to lick an envelope with out suffering the consequences of severe abdominal pain, gastrointestinal symptoms or a rash. Imagine not being able to partake in the Eucharist because of being allergic to the wheat of the host.

One in 133 people in the U.S. suffer all or some of these dilemmas every single day. They have celiac disease –– an allergy to gluten which is present in wheat, rye, barley and oats. Gluten is an ingredient that binds things together and is found in thousands of products –– both food based and non-food based.

Susan Mayer, an employee for the Syracuse Diocese was diagnosed with celiac disease five years ago. The disease is genetic, but no one in Mayer’s family showed signs of having the disease. Her symptoms, which had been ongoing for three months, were difficult to diagnose because they often mimicked other diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome or show up as joint pain, fatigue or a skin rash. When Mayer was finally diagnosed, she heard the words, “no bread”, “no pizza”, “and no pasta.” “A few days after I was diagnosed, I was going to communion and it hit me that the host was made of wheat,” said Mayer. That realization was the beginning of a long, emotional road for Mayer, who is a devout Catholic. “That has been the most difficult part of this disease –– not being able to celebrate the Eucharist,” said Mayer.

With the help of Father Joseph Champlin, Mayer was able to purchase low-gluten hosts from a group of Benedictine nuns in Missouri who had developed them. “I am so grateful to the sisters who have worked for 10 years to come up with these hosts that have enough wheat in them to meet the standards of Canon Law,” said Mayer. Prior to the availability of the low-gluten hosts, Mayer who is unable to partake of the Precious Blood of Jesus because she suffers from migraines that can be brought on by the consumption of red wine, was unable to celebrate the Eucharist. “For a while, I was unable to go to communion at all,” said Mayer. However, her faith is so important to her, that she would sometimes partake and suffer the consequences. “I’m not about to sacrifice my soul for the sake of my intestines,” she said.

Like Mayer, Sally Seeley, a parishioner at St. Matthew’s Parish in East Syracuse, felt very excluded from the Mass when she was unable to partake of the Sacred Body. Seeley, who also suffers from celiac disease, is the membership and new patient information chairperson for the Central New York Celiac Support Group. Seeley is able to participate in the Eucharist by partaking of the Precious Blood. She has elected not to purchase the low-gluten hosts because of logistic problems. Both women said that it was difficult to try to explain their needs to priests, deacons or Eucharistic ministers who are not familiar with them or their situation.

“I feel very deprived if I attend a wedding or funeral and am not offered the sacred blood of Christ,” said Seeley. “If no one is giving out wine, I am unable to receive the sacrament.” Seeley said that she often feels singled out or embarrassed when partaking in the Eucharistic celebration. “I’ve had Eucharistic ministers refuse to offer me the Precious Blood of Christ because they saw I didn’t receive the body of Christ,” said Seeley. “I’ve stood at the altar rail and argued my case.” Father John Donovan, of the Office of Vocation Promotion of the Syracuse Diocese, said that the church is interested in responding to the people who have a need for low-gluten hosts. Father Donovan has learned much about the issue because he also has celiac disease.

“People should be aware that there are options,” said Father Donovan. “The low-gluten hosts are perfectly safe for almost all Celiacs.” Father Donovan encourages people who have celiac disease to notify their parish priest, inquire whether low-gluten hosts can be made available and consider the alternative of receiving the Precious Blood of Christ instead of partaking of the body. “But make sure the wine is a no-gluten wine,” he said.

A special Mass is scheduled for Catholic celiacs, their families and friends on Saturday, Nov. 6 at 12 p.m. at the Church of the Holy Name of Mary, Croton-On-Hudson, N.Y. Communion will be provided under both species. Contact Chris Spreitzer at (914) 737-5291 or email the Catholic Celiac Society at info@catholicceliacs.org for additional information. Locally, one can obtain information on celiac disease by contacting Sally Seeley or Ruth Whyman, of the CNY Celiac Support Group at (315) 463-4616.

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