I recently saw a story on the news about a little girl in New Jersey whose first Holy Communion was invalidated by the bishop. Apparently she is allergic to wheat, and a priest gave her Communion with a host made of rice. Why can’t she receive a rice host instead of a wheat host since she is allergic? What can be done?
Remember the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of a sacrament: A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. Our Lord instituted the sacraments, and the Church has the duty of preserving their integrity.
The first point in dealing with this situation is to ask, “How did Christ institute the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist?” In the gospel accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated a Passover meal with His apostles. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, “During the meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. ‘Take this and eat it,’ He said, ‘this is my Body.’ Then He took a cup, gave thanks, gave it to them, ‘All of you must drink from it,’ He said, ‘for this is my Blood, the Blood of the covenant, to be poured out in behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’” (26: 26-28). This account is repeated in the Gospels of Sts. Mark and Luke. While the Gospel of St. John does not mention these details of the Last Supper scene, the beautiful Bread of Life discourse is recorded in which Jesus identified Himself as the Bread of Life (Cf. Jn 6).
Given the gospel accounts and the fact that the Last Supper was in the context of a Passover meal, our Lord definitely used unleavened wheat bread and grape wine. Therefore, since the earliest times of the Church, at least in the tradition of the West, and in every early account of the Mass recorded by the Church Fathers, never has there been a deviation from the use of unleavened wheat bread and grape wine. (Please note, mention here is made of the tradition in the West, i.e. the Latin Rite; the Eastern Churches have the tradition of using leavened wheat bread and grape wine.) For this reason, the Code of Canon Law (Canon 924) mandates: “The Most Sacred Eucharistic Sacrifice must be celebrated with bread and wine, with which a small quantity of water is to be mixed. The bread must be made of wheat alone, recently made so that there is no danger of corruption. The wine must be natural wine of the grape and not corrupt.”
Canon 926 says, “In accord with the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, the priest is to use unleavened bread in the celebration of the Eucharist whenever he offers it.” These prescriptions are also asserted in the Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis (no. 320) and most recently “Redemptionis Sacramentum” (“On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist,” no. 48).
Given this teaching on how Christ instituted the sacrament and how the Church has preserved it since the apostolic times, to validly confect the Holy Eucharist the priest must use unleavened wheat bread and grape wine (which together constitute the matter of the sacrament) and pronounce the words of consecration as prescribed in the Roman Missal (which constitute the form of the sacrament). Remember the matter of the sacrament is the physical sign value and the form is the prayer said; to deviate from the prescribed matter or form of the sacrament invalidates it, meaning there is no sacrament. Redemptionis Sacramentum states this clearly: “It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament. It is a grave abuse to introduce other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey, into the bread for confecting the Eucharist” (no. 48).
Please note that this teaching is not new, but has been consistently repeated. To make this clear, if a person wants to make water, he uses hydrogen and oxygen; if he uses hydrogen and nitrogen, there will be no water. At Mass, to confect the Holy Eucharist, the priest must use unleavened wheat bread and grape wine; to use anything other than unleavened wheat bread and grape wine will not result in the confection of the holy Eucharist.
With this understanding, regarding the news story in question, the little girl who received a host made from rice simply did not receive the Holy Eucharist. While the news network may have reported that the bishop “invalidated” the little girl’s first Holy Communion, in fact he simply recognized that she did not receive the Holy Eucharist. A host made of rice simply cannot be transubstantiated into the Holy Eucharist. Keep in mind, the Church is not upholding “man-made rules,” as some like to charge; rather, the Church is preserving and defending what our Lord instituted.
Another point: Any priest should have known better. Objectively, the tampering with the matter and form of a sacrament is a mortal sin.
So what are the alternatives? First, the little girl who is allergic to the gluten in wheat could make her first Holy Communion by receiving the Precious Blood from the chalice. The fullness of grace is truly present and given by receiving just the sacred host, or just the Precious Blood, or both.
Second, wheat hosts can be made in which the gluten has been almost completely removed. Several convents of religious sisters, who make hosts to help support themselves financially, now offer wheat hosts in which nearly all the gluten has been removed.
Most importantly, we must not lose the focus of what is at stake in this discussion. The Second Vatican Council taught, “For the most Holy Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth: Christ Himself, our Passover and Living Bread. Through His own flesh, now made living and life-giving by the Holy Spirit, He offers life to men” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 5).
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)