The communion host, the centerpiece of Christian religious services, is undergoing a 21st-century transformation to match the growing food sensitivities of folks in the pews.
Alongside the white and whole wheat bread, gluten-free wafers are making their way into churches across Minnesota.
St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington is among those offering a separate communion table for the gluten-free. “At first it was like, ‘Who are those anti-social people over there who don’t like germs?’ ” joked Julie Salato, a regular at the table. “But after it was announced during the service and in the church bulletin, people understood.”
Hosts aside, a variety of accommodations are slipping into religious services.
Priests at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis use incense that is easier on the eyes and lungs than the frankincense of old. The church also offers low-gluten hosts and vegetarian meal options at many gatherings.
Mayflower Church in Minneapolis bans nuts, serves only communion grape juice, and offers gluten-free lemon bars and sweets for everyone after the service.
Richfield United Methodist is among many church sanctuaries with a section of fragrance-free pews.
The trend reflects both the public’s growing awareness of food sensitivities and churches’ desire to be “inclusive.”
“I think most denominations in the Minnesota Council of Churches want to be known as welcoming places,” said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the council’s executive director. “Congregations want to be welcoming in big ways — in terms of race and gender — as well as on an individual basis.”
Hosts sales explode
Gluten-free communion hosts and bread are the fastest-growing trend. They’re now requested by parishioners with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder aggravated by even the smallest morsel of wheat, as well as those with less-severe gluten intolerances.
Augsburg Fortress of Minneapolis, the publishing and religious-goods arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has sold more than 300,000 gluten-free wafers over the past three years, the company reports. It’s an astronomical leap from the 13,000 sold in 2007, when the hosts were introduced.
St. Patrick’s Guild in St. Paul sold more than 27,000 gluten-free hosts last fiscal year, up from 3,500 when they were introduced in 2006, said church goods manager Mark DePalma. It sold another 4,500 “low-gluten” hosts to Catholic churches.
That’s not to mention the untold number of do-it-yourselfers. Faith Mennonite Church of Minneapolis, for example, cooks up a gluten-free bread mix from Pamela’s Products that is served to all.
Catholics offer a slightly different twist. Their communion hosts must contain at least a trace of wheat, in keeping with the belief that Jesus used a wheat bread at the Last Supper.
Many Catholic churches have turned to hosts such as the “Altar Breads” developed by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, which contain .01 percent wheat. The Missouri-based sisters spent 10 years developing the hosts, which are approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
More than 200 Minnesota parishes and individuals purchase the hosts, said Benedictine Sister Lynn D’Souza.
“Our sales of these low-gluten breads have increased beyond our wildest imaginings,” said D’Souza, referring to the nearly 900,000 hosts sold last year. “We get new customers every week.”
The boom doesn’t surprise people like Mary Jane Adams, who has gone gluten-free to support her 9-year-old daughter, who has celiac disease.
Not being able to participate in a church sacrament “feels really bad,” she said.
“To not take birthday cake is one thing,” Adams said. “To not take communion is intolerable.”
It’s also socially awkward. “Everyone is getting up and leaving their seat [during communion],” she said. “When you stay in your seat, you feel that all eyes are on you.”
How it works
On a recent Sunday morning at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, the Rev. Tom Olson casually made an announcement as servers prepared for communion.
“If you prefer a gluten-free wafer, they are available to my left under the screen,” he said. “All are welcome at this table.”
Salato and her daughter Sierra Salato joined the communion line closest to the table. Instead of walking directly to the servers, they stopped at the table, removed a host from inside a plastic bag and picked up a tiny glass of grape juice. They then walked over to the server, who blessed it with the words “body of Christ.”
“It makes us feel completed,” said Salato. “You feel excluded if you can’t take part of an important part of your faith.”
The gluten-free host tastes like a rice cracker. Instead of slowly melting in the mouth, it packs a crunch. “Sierra actually likes the taste of them,” Salato said.
Making communion wine accessible also is a priority for many churches. Mayflower Church is among many that have long served grape juice. That became increasingly important as it developed its ministry for people in recovery from alcohol addiction.
Mayflower makes it clear that its changes are good for everyone.
“We use grape juice and gluten-free bread so all might be included: children, expectant mothers, and those with addictions and allergies,” the minister announced from the altar.
“It makes a level playing field without added challenges,” said Cathy Brown, who leads a recovery support program through the church. “If you have an addiction or allergies, you already have challenges in other parts of your life.”
Clearing the air
The incense that floats through traditional Catholic masses also has undergone some changes because some people in the pews complain of the smoke and smell. Frankincense, the incense traditionally used, can cause coughing and breathing difficulties.
The Basilica of St. Mary is among many Catholic institutions that have switched to less-irritating incense. It also limits the use of incense, said Johan van Parys, liturgy director at the basilica.
“We have six liturgies, and only one will have incense,” said Van Parys. “And the type of incense we use is supposedly nonallergenic. But the smoke it produces is still irritating to some people.”
DePalma, of St. Patrick’s Guild, acknowledges that it’s a challenge to find incense that doesn’t irritate someone. “We used to get calls all the time for ‘nonallergenic incense,’ ” he said. “There is no such animal. Everyone is different. People have different allergies.”
That said, “less-offensive” incense is now available, said DePalma, including those with rose or forest scents.
Religious leaders who have adopted the changes say it’s a modest price to pay to attract and keep members. Just as accommodations have been made for people with physical disabilities, these changes are a blessing to those with less visible challenges.
Said Olson: “It’s not a big thing, but if you’re going to be welcoming, you need to be welcoming sacramentally as well.”