— -- For many years, Rachel Reiger, a 22-year-old Catholic from Cleveland, did not take communion because she feared she was allergic to what the church says, in essence, is the body of Christ.
Reiger lives with celiac disease, a severe autoimmune disorder that affects the digestion of the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Since communion wafers generally contain wheat, she was afraid they would make her sick.
"I had stopped taking communion and I also avoided taking a sip of the sacramental wine because others receiving communion could leave traces of gluten on the cup from taking the wafer," she said.
One obvious solution to Reiger's dilemma: gluten-free wafers. Several companies make such a thing. But the Vatican has deemed these unacceptable.
"Canon Law specifies that communion wafers must contain wheat," said Mark Merdian, the vicar of health care for the Diocese of Peoria in Illinois. That has been the case since 1995.
Merdian explained that since wheat is mentioned in the bible as nourishing both the body and the spirit, wheat-free communion wafers are not considered proper matter for the holy Euchres, the bread and wine that represent the body of Christ. In 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed, writing in a statement that "it is impossible to consecrate a host made of something other than wheat and water."
Other Christian churches find gluten-free wafers acceptable. For instance, the Trinity Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan has offered them to congregants for the past four years. And Asbury United Methodist Church in Madison, Wisconsin, has provided them for about a year.
Merdian said after doing extensive research he tracked down low-gluten wafers that are made by the Benedictine sisters in Clyde, Missouri, and are approved by the Vatican.
"They contain trace amounts of wheat, about .01 percent, which is enough to satisfy the sacrament but should be safe for those who have celiac," he said, adding that anyone who thought the wafers might cause a health problem should check with their doctor.
The low-gluten wafers made by the Benedictine Sisters contain less than 100 parts per million. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently put a regulation in place that products can be labeled gluten-free if the gluten content is less than 20 parts per million.
Some people lining up for a gluten-free communion may not have celiac. They may be simply following the latest trend among dieters.
Only about one percent of the population has celiac disease (though only 17 percent of those are diagnosed) according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Yet C.M. Almy and Michigan Church Supply, both large sellers of communion wafers, report a 10 percent rise in gluten-free and low-gluten alternative sales in the last five years, despite no increase in overall wafer sales.
Merdian said while he can't attribute much of the increase in low-gluten communions to anyone other than people with celiac disease in his current flock, he did suspect some of the requests came from dieters in a church he presided over in Champaign, Illinois.
"I think you may see this in larger, more modern communities," he said. "But we aren't interested in addressing lifestyle choices with the wafers, only medical needs."
Reiger said she thought anyone asking for a gluten-free communion who isn't celiac is taking a dieting choice too far.
"That's quite a level of dedication for a trend," she said.
Recently, Reiger began taking communion again. Her current church was able to find low-gluten wafers that meet Vatican requirements and don't make her ill. She said she brings her own pyx, a small circular container to carry the host, to avoid gluten contamination and she takes her sip of wine from a separate cup.
"Sometimes with a celiac disease diagnosis you feel left out of one of the biggest parts of the religion," she said. "When you can take part in communion again, I feel you can come to terms with your diagnosis. You can have faith and know things are going to get better."
Additional reporting by Bryan Sisk