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Tuesday, 24 September 2013 12:06

Coeliacs in the Church rejoice

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Carmelite nuns in Nedlands, Western Australia have been making low-gluten communion hosts since early 2013, making coeliac disease sufferers receive Holy Communion without fear for their health. 

Carmelite nuns in Nedlands have discovered a way to make Communion hosts that have almost all gluten content removed.

The low-gluten hosts are now available to parishes to allow coeliac disease sufferers to receive Holy Communion without fear for their health.

Sr Joanne told The Record she has been making a small amount of the altar breads since March.

“Basically, I started it when I saw how expensive it was for people to buy [low-gluten] hosts,” she said.

“By luck, chance, but I’d say providence, we found a way to do it. I really want to let people know that it’s very low gluten and it’s safe without actually worrying anyone that it’s not approved by Rome.”

Canon Law states that the altar bread used for Holy Communion must be made from wheat and water. Furthermore, in 1994, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a decree stating that Communion hosts must contain enough gluten to attain the “confection of bread”.

It also stated that using “gluten-free” hosts made of rice, corn, or tapioca starch would constitute “invalid matter” for consecration and therefore transubstantiation would not occur.

Sr Joanne said the hosts made by the Carmelites in Nedlands have a “trace” of gluten content.

She said the mixture was tested and the amount of gluten present was less than five parts per million – the minimum amount detectable.

Considering the average weight of a Communion host is one-fifth of a gram, the amount of gluten is miniscule. Technically, such a small amount can be classified as “gluten-free”; however, the “trace” of gluten present means the hosts fulfil the Vatican’s requirements.

Earlier this month, in America, the Food and Drug Administration defined “gluten-free” as containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten content.

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code defines “gluten-free” as containing “no detectable gluten”.

Benedictine nuns in the US have made low-gluten hosts for the past decade, but Sr Joanne said she does not follow the same recipe.

“The way we do it is quite different from the way they do it, because the end product is quite different, it’s more like the ordinary altar breads,” she said.

“I found I could make altar breads with pure wheaten starch, [which] is wheat flour with almost all the gluten extracted. But it’s pure wheat, it’s nothing else, wheat and water, but very, very low-gluten.”

The process itself is both time-consuming and difficult, Sr Joanne said.

“By a few accidents I actually found by doing this first stage… which I call preparing the dough, I can then put it on the iron and bake it and it comes out very nicely. I’ve had very positive responses about the quality of it,” she said.

With up to 250,000 sufferers of coeliac disease in Australia, Sr Joanne said she felt it was important to assist them.

“I feel myself that the Lord wants it done so that these people can go to Communion,” she said.

“It’s very difficult if the Church insists on this [rule], so I think the solution is if people can make [the hosts] from wheat starch… it’s a way out of the conundrum.”

Fr Robert Cross, who suffers from coeliac disease and uses a low-gluten host when he celebrates Mass, said while consuming gluten would not be fatal for him, it could result in numerous “nasty things”.

“I think a lot of priests think that being a coeliac is all in the mind, but it’s not,” he said.

“It’s basically an allergic reaction that happens in your intestines.”

“A lot of priests don’t consider it serious, but coeliacs do because they’re the ones suffering.

“I think every parish should make it known that the low-gluten bread is available for those who wish to receive it.”

(Photos used with permission of Sr Joanne, taken from the website of the Carmelites in Nedlands.)

Read more about the Carmelites in Nedlands WA.

This article by Matthew Biddle was first published in the 21 August 2013 edition of The Record, the weekly publication of the Catholic Church in Western Australia.