Communion without Mass? / Guidelines on gluten-free

Q: This morning I went to weekday Mass, as is my custom. Due to a heavy snowstorm in the area, I was the only person there, so the priest decided not to celebrate Mass. I asked whether I could receive Communion, and the priest said that he was unable to do that since Communion can be given only during a Mass.

I didn’t question him at the time, but simply left and went home. But on the way home, I began to wonder about it. For more than 30 years, I have been a eucharistic minister in hospitals throughout the Syracuse area, bringing Communion to patients in their rooms. If it is possible for them to receive Communion without attending Mass, why couldn’t I? (Central New York)

By Fr. Kenneth Doyle
By Fr. Kenneth Doyle

A: It is true that, in ordinary circumstances, holy Communion is to be received only when someone participates in the celebration of the entire Eucharist. The bread and wine are offered, transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and then returned by God to the worshiper as a full sharing in the sacrifice of Jesus.

There are, however, exceptions. One is the situation you mentioned, when a patient is visited in a hospital room by a eucharistic minister bringing the gift of Communion. Another is a Sunday or weekday celebration in the absence of a priest: When a priest is unable to be present, a deacon or designated lay leader may distribute Communion, after appropriate prayers and scriptural readings.

In the circumstance you raise, my own choice as a priest would have been to celebrate the Eucharist. You, after all, had fought off the snow to arrive at church, and you deserved to be credited and accommodated.

What would have been lost if the priest had taken 25 minutes to say a Mass even with just the two of you present — especially since he had already set aside the time to do that? Not only would the two of you have benefited, but other people as well — since the Mass is always offered for the needs of the wider church.

Q: At our parish weekend Mass, one child comes regularly to the altar at the same time as the eucharistic ministers and receives Communion separately from the congregation. My understanding is that he has celiac disease and gets a gluten-free host.

But I just realized today that the celebrant gives him Communion using the same hand that has just touched the “regular” hosts. As a person with a food allergy myself (albeit a different one), doesn’t that risk a cross-contamination of the host received by the boy? (Lansdale, Pennsylvania)

A woman receives Communion during a Mass. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
A woman receives Communion during a Mass. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

A: The Mayo Clinic in 2012 estimated that 1.8 million Americans suffer from celiac disease; for them, eating gluten (a protein contained in wheat) can cause serious damage to the intestinal lining. This would mean that, in a Sunday congregation of 400 worshipers, two or three would likely be afflicted.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has recognized the danger you point out of cross-contamination. In their pastoral guidelines, they suggest that before Mass begins, a low-gluten host be placed in a pyx on the altar. (A pyx is a small inexpensive metal container, and most parishes would have several of them.)

When the person with gluten intolerance approaches the priest in the Communion line, he or she could simply be handed the pyx containing the consecrated host and then self-communicate.

You will notice that I use the term “low-gluten” rather than “gluten-free.” According to the Vatican, hosts must be made of wheat since Christ used wheat bread at the Last Supper.

In the parish from which I just retired, we used low-gluten hosts made by Benedictine nuns in Clyde, Missouri, that contain less than 0.01 percent of gluten and that medical research has deemed safe for most celiac sufferers. Researchers have estimated that most of those afflicted would have to consume 270 such wafers a day to reach a danger point.

For safety’s sake, a person with celiac disease is best advised to seek medical advice regarding the consumption of low-gluten hosts; those Catholics unable to consume even low-gluten hosts may receive under the species of wine only, even if the cup is not offered to the rest of the congregation at a particular Mass.

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr. Albany, New York 12203.

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