Food allergies and the Eucharist with a serving of “humble pie”

When I was the Director of the Office for Worship for the Archdiocese of Boston, an unfortunate controversy arose both in the Catholic community and in the media about a little boy who was unable to receive the Host at his first holy communion.  As I recall, the family was upset that the pastor in their home parish was unwilling to let them use a host made of rice rather than one of wheat.  They pointed to the fact that they knew of at least two parishes in the archdiocese that already used rice hosts for those who are gluten intolerant or allergic to wheat altogether.  When their pastor said he couldn’t use rice hosts because it wasn’t allowed, the family went to the media with their story.  It ended up on the front page of the local tabloid and then was picked up by the local radio and television.  Now, this was long before I had anything do with communications for the archdiocese but the archdiocese needed someone to respond to the media storm that the story was generating so they asked me, the Director of the Office for Worship to do so.  Well, they say “fools rush in where wise men fear to dwell,” and I rushed in and blew it.

I called the pastor and asked him to fill me in on what was going on, which he did, but then I never called the family and got their side of the story.  Instead, armed with all I needed from the pastor I began to return calls to the media and explain what the Church’s teaching was on this matter – that the Host had to be wheat and couldn’t be anything else and that the child would just have to receive from the cup.  I explained that we Catholics believe that the fullness of the Eucharistic presence is found in both the Host and the chalice and that while it was unfortunate that the child could not receive the Host, he could surely receive from the chalice. 

Sounded pretty straight-forward and reasonable.  The problem was that I really didn’t stop and consider that we were dealing with a family and a little boy, not a theological case study.  My whole attitude was wrong-headed.  It wasn’t what I said, it was how I said it.  When I was interviewed by local television and radio, my manner came across as “I don’t know what the problem is for the family” and that they were some how being unreasonable. “The little boy can receive from the cup.”  Case closed.

Never mind that all the other children were receiving a Host at communion. Never mind that the family was receiving mixed messages because other pastors in the archdiocese were, unfortunately, using rice hosts and no one had bothered to correct this.  Never mind that none of the other children at First Communion were being offered the cup as well.  Never mind that in the little boy’s parish the cup was not offered to the laity as normal practice at any Mass during the week.   Never mind that our whole Catholic Eucharistic practice for centuries has focused on the Host and not on the cup, especially for the laity.  Never mind that in religious ed. classes and catechesis, the children heard over and over again about how they were going to receive the Host, “the little white guest.” Never mind that I didn’t bother to sit down and listen to the family tell their side of the story and the struggles that they have had with food allergies and protecting their child from food that he cannot eat and how finally, it looked like they had a solution to his being able to receive the Host but then, they didn’t.  Never mind that I forgot that we were talking about a little boy.

The family left the Church.  They joined another Christian community that used rice hosts.  I continued working as the Director of the Office of Worship.  I am embarrassed to say that it took the years of the clergy sex abuse scandal to really change my focus away from issues/theology/ecclesiology as my starting point to the person, the pastoral, first.  You would think that a priest would understand that, but I was too job and task centered.  When there was a person right in front of me, that was one thing, but if I was asked a question, I often went “policy” or theoretical.  I had to learn that in all things with the Church and human life, it is important to start with the person, which I didn’t do with that family.  I don’t know if the outcome would have been different if I had listened to them first.  I couldn’t tell them it was okay to use a rice host.  The only one who could give permission for a host made of anything but wheat is the pope, not me, not any other priest, not any bishop. Church teaching is very strict on this and has been for centuries.  But, maybe if I had listened to them, I could have worked with his pastor and parish to make the little boy’s communion from the cup a more normal practice for the whole community.

In my former parish, we made it a practice to offer low-gluten hosts (approved by the USCCB for use) at all the Masses to those who needed them.  This was not just for the few people in the parish community who were gluten intolerant.  Many times after Mass I would have guests come forward and tell me how welcome they felt in being able to receive the low gluten host at a parish other than their own.  When I first came on board as pastor, the cup was not offered to the laity at any of the Masses.  That soon changed.  Now the cup is offered at every Mass.  Working with the religious ed. director, we changed the manner in which the children were prepared for First Communion so that when we spoke of Communion we made every effort to speak of the Host and the cup.  At meetings with parents we explained that we would be offering both the Host and the cup at First Communion and that they could make the decision as to whether or not their child would receive from the cup.  As it turned out, about half the children did receive from the cup.  We changed the altar wine that we used to one that was sweeter and less apt to be too bitter for children’s taste.  We also had a little girl in the parish who was allergic to wheat and could only receive from the cup.  She received her First Communion with her classmates and continues to receive from the cup at every Mass.  

As more and more children and adults are found to have food allergies, we as Catholics need to look at our Eucharistic practices to make sure that we make every effort to be as inclusive as we can be.  This involves paying attention to matters of hospitality, attitude, and catechesis.  While we cannot use anything but wheat hosts for the Eucharist, we can certainly change many things to make it easier for those who cannot receive the Host to still receive Communion from the cup as a normal practice not just for them but for all who worship in faith.  



9 Comments. Leave new

“… it took the years of the clergy sex abuse scandal to really change my focus away from issues/theology/ecclesiology as my starting point to the person, the pastoral, first… I had to learn that in all things with the Church and human life, it is important to start with the person…”

Thanks for your honesty, Bishop Chris. Those experiences surely inform your episcopal ministry today. But further, your experience can become an important point of ongoing formation for the clergy whom you serve. We all are in need of mentoring, to one extent or another. Based on historical scholarship, St Jerome might be the first to admit that he could have used some coaching in anger management; Blessed Constance of Compiegne could give a testimonial on how to move from fear to courage.

May God grant you every needed gift to serve as teacher, pastor, and prophet, so that in your own life you may echo the words of St Paul: “follow me as I follow Christ.” [cf. I Cor 11:1]

As a parent of a food allergic child it is amazing to see church leadership act with compassion. Unfortunately “leading with compassion” doesn’t happen often enough at the parish level.

to julpac – i think there are a lot of good, compassionate priests and lay staff out there – and a lot of us are trying to “get it” – I just think that when it comes to issues like this, we just have a lot of catching up to do especially in terms of being educated – I’ve started working with the Office for Worship here in Indianapolis to do just that – there is a lot goodwill here in the archdiocese.

I’m a bit confused. I have heard people, time and again, make the assertion that somehow doctrinal correctness and “being pastoral” are a dichotomy, but this is patently false.

I am not saying that this is what you are stating, Your Excellency. In fact I actively doubt it. However, I think a naive reading or a biased one could interpret it that way.

I think what you have identified, as a great many people before you have, is simply very poor catechises. Unfortunately, I don’t think simply offering the Precious Blood solves that issue. In fact, many people I have talked to who are used to receiving the Precious Blood mistakenly believe that you must receive under both species in order to receive the entire sacrament.

Good Post Bishop. But as I mention im at my blog the commenter above has a good point too

Your excellency, there’s much wisdom in this post. If I might add a side note: The situation seems to illustrate the dangers of letting abuses fester. The family’s pique seems to have been amplified by a sense of injustice, to wit, “some other parishes are using invalid matter, so why won’t you?” No doubt the other parishes were well-meaning, and no doubt they were given too free a rein for “pastoral” reasons, viz. sympathy with their good intentions. But as your post indicates, the result was unanticipated and unfortunate. It created the false impression that a family was being unfairly treated, and between that and poor catechesis (no well-catechized Catholic would abandon ship), we ended up losing a family from the flock, and they ended up losing a lot more.

“Pastoral” is, I think, the most abused word in the language. It has come to mean “do virtually nothing.” But “pastoral” means “in the nature of a shepherd,” which is fitting for bishops, the shepherds of their flocks. No shepherd would allow wolves to freely roam among the flock, or would leave a contagious sheep untreated (and potentially infecting others) simply because the treatment would hurt. Prompt action is often necessary and for the best.

A very honest post.
Have you tried to reach out to the family and apologize? Maybe the story isn’t over and you can be a good shepherd to them.

Bishop Coyne, this comment comes a bit late, but I think it is worth mentioning, especially for anyone who happens to come across this blog post.

I think a third option that I personally see fewer advocacy for is for “Spiritual Communion”. Feel free to correct me, but from my understanding, this option has merit. I wholly understand that it does not suffice to the actual reception of communion, but it is nonetheless another form of sacrifice for which to receive grace.

Just putting this out there; God created these children with these allergies.
Life is complex for children that have these life threatening allergies. May people are not aware of the severity of these allergy reactions. These children have to learn at an early age how to keep themselves “safe”.
The church should be a safe and supportive place.
A sanctuary.

The church needs to focus on the teachings of Jesus; love and acceptance. To me it seems like a no brainer. What would Jesus do? I think we all know the answer. He would do what was best for the child that was accepting him into himself; hosting him.

I am a teacher. For the last 15 years, I have had at least one student out of 30 with sever food allergies. More and more, we need the church to be our sanctuary.