CONCERNING the case of Jennifer Richardson, 5, who applied to receive her First Communion in a gluten-free form (rice wafer), because of her celiac disease, canon law specifies that the bread used “must be only wheat” (CL 11/2/01).
The Boston pastor concerned, adhered to canon law and the father of the child returned to his original Methodist Church. The cardinal affirmed the pastor’s decision, but wrote to the parents asking them to reconsider – to no avail.
The family has over-reacted as the child has an option – the reception of the blood, which involves the fullness of the sacrament. Kindness to a sick child is not in itself a sufficient reason to indicate what food form should be used for Communion, and it is not, after all, anybody’s fault that the child has the celiac condition.
However, the issue touches a number of other points. First of all, we should observe that the Church has the right and the duty to specify appropriate materials and processes for this most central sacrament. The reason that those who formulated canon law specify wheat exclusively, is because it was used by Jesus to give us this sacrament in the first instance. However, in some cases the literal application of Jesus’ word indicates a standing apart from it, a failure to enter into its spirit. This recalls the literalism that Jesus was confronted with in his exchanges with the scribes and pharisees.
We cannot doubt that the principal reason Jesus uses wheat is that it is the major, suitable, food form of Israel and that entire region. There can hardly be a particular botanical or chemical reason for his choice of wheat rather than other grains. It is this social reason Jesus uses, that we should imitate.
But when canon 924.1 was formulated, the grain that Jesus used was the only consideration. Certainly rice rather than wheat was the major food form for most of the world’s population, but even in the rice areas, wheat was readily available for the relatively minute requirements of Communion. Clearly though, wheat is not a choice for celiacs.
The Church was born within Judaic culture, and predictably, had to work hard to free itself from the nationalism associated with it. Having freed itself, it opened itself to the world, but subsequently imbibed from the Graeco/Roman culture/s. About the 17th century the Jesuits, in their missionary endeavours in China, asked Rome to allow them to conform the liturgy to this great culture, but were refused. Rome seemed to have forgotten the Church’s ready accommodation to Greek culture, earlier. The refusal, no doubt, cost the Church dearly and was only corrected in the 1930-40s.
I believe the acceptance of other grains would help indicate to ourselves and others, that the Church is not culturally biased, and would show our ability to discern the essential Gospel that underlies everything good in all cultures.
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