As It Happens

These Catholic nuns make low-gluten wafers for communion with the Vatican's blessing

The Pope has said no to gluten-free wafers, but these nuns use a recipe that abides by the rules and allows people with celiac disease to part take in communion.
The Sisters have made communion wafers since 1910 and began making a low-gluten version in 2003 and have gone from 143 customers in 2004 to more than 11,000 customers from around the world. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

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New guidelines from Pope Francis regarding the host, or wafer, that Catholics worldwide take at Holy Communion have been issued. At the heart of these new guidelines is gluten. More specifically, the Vatican wants Catholics to not go gluten-free when it comes to the sacred Sunday ritual.

But at least one order of Catholic nuns says it's found a way to keep things holy, while keeping worshippers who have celiac disease safe.

Sister Ruth Elaine Starman is with the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Mo. She told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch about their solution to the gluten-free ban. 

LL: Sister Ruth, why does the Vatican care if the wafers, or hosts contain, gluten?

RS: The Catholic Church has always taught that the communion host needs to be of wheat. 

Catholics believe Jesus instituted the sacraments at the Last Supper. And given the gospel accounts and the fact that the last supper was in the context of a passover meal, Jesus would have used unleavened wheat bread and grape wine.

It's the Catholic Church's way of doing what Jesus Christ asked to do in memory of him. 

Low-gluten prayer breads fill a container at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Clyde Missouri. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

LL: Are any Catholics actually avoiding communion wafers because of gluten?

RS: Some Catholics will if they really have a very strong sensitivity to gluten. Then really there only option is to drink from the chalice, which is just the wine.

LL: Tell us about your product. 

RS: We had been experimenting for about 10 years because we had had people calling us and asking is there any way we can develop ... a gluten-free product.

And in 2003, a couple of our sisters finally hit on the right recipe and we use wheat starch that has the gluten removed and water and managed to get the right combination to make a wafer that tasted fairly good and that satisfies both canon law and have a very minimal amount of gluten. 

A mosaic of the Last Supper, also considered to be the first Eucharist, adorns the chapel at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

LL: What is the minimal amount that, I guess, qualifies for the Vatican?

RS: I don't know that the church even has a minimal amount that they would say. I've never seen any documentation about that. But the wheat starch that we do get has most of the gluten removed, so there is just a bit still in there.

But when you test it, about the lowest is maybe 0.01 per cent. Although ours recently tested at about  0.001 per cent of gluten.   

LL: And has it received, the um, I'll use the word blessing, from the Vatican then?

RS: Yeah. Actually, our breads are approved by the States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Sister Ruth Elaine Starman, listen to the audio above.