Ireland is known as a country of ironies. One of the greatest ironies from a Catholic perspecive is that in a land with one of the highest incidences of the coeliac condition in the world, communion from the chalice is rarely if ever given. This means that Irish Catholics whose intolerance of gluten rules out sharing in the eucharistic bread rarely have access to Holy Communion under the form of wine, the form which is safest for them — and therefore rarely have access to Holy Communion at all. This would be serious in any country, but given the prevalence of the condition in Ireland, this is particulurly unfortunate.
Statistics regarding coeliacs suggest as many as one in a hundred Irish people may have this serious condition that causes some adults and children to react to gluten, a key component in the confection of bread. This means each parish in Ireland must have a number of coeliacs – and therefore no parish can ignore the making of arrangements for its coeliac population.
For many years, this problem was solved in the Irish Church by catering for coeliacs with gluten-free hosts – and, in parishes where no gluten-free hosts were stocked, coeliacs frequently came to the sacristy before Mass with their own supply, for consecration. But then the Church authorities in Rome ruled that a certain amount of gluten had to be contained in the bread for it to be valid for consecration. Irish Catholics seem to be caught in a Catch-22 situation: to suit a coeliac, the host has to be fully gluten-free – but for Rome such a host is not valid matter for consecration. A low-gluten host might suit some coeliacs; but, again, it might not make a valid host.
Catholics universally would see a simple solution – let the coeliac receive under the species of wine from the chalice. After all, Catholics believe that the Body and Blood of the Lord are wholly consumed under either species. When this article for the Tablet’s Parish Practice on Irish coeliacs was first mooted, the solution seemed so obvious as to not need rehearsing. I think communion from the chalice is automatically available to communicants across the Catholic world — but it isn’t in Ireland.
This is because the Irish Mass is a peculiar phenomonen, a product of its cultural history. The almost 200 years of persecution of Irish Catholics, from the mid-17th century to the early 19th century, has taken a long-lasting toll. In those years when celebration of the sacraments was illegal and Mass was said in the open air in secluded locations (often at Mass rocks), in fear of Crown forces, brevity was the key factor in the Mass – a consideration that continues to haunt Irish Catholics to this day. I have seen more solemnity in weekday Masses in France than at some Sunday Masses in Ireland. Historical shadows are not easily shaken off.
The fear of being discovered in the course of these illicit open-air gatherings also led to quiet Masses, devoid of singing, deliberately to avoid attention being drawn to the celebration; this continues to be the common Irish Catholic experience of Mass to this day. Even if choirs sing, Catholic in the pews resolutely refuse to. It is also said that the Irish practice of men standing at the back of the church and even outside dates back to their protective role in those open-air congragations.
The duration of the average Sunday Mass in Ireland is 40 to 45 minutes; this seems to the maximum length tolerable, though in many places Mass can be 10-15 minutes shorter than that. This means that everything is pared back to the bare minimum, with readings omitted, homilies cut to a few sentences, singing avoided — and such ‘optional elements’ as communion from the chalice, essential as it might be for coeliacs, having no chance of being attempted, lest the Mass no longer be fast enough.
You might wonder why in such circumstances coeliacs would not then come to the altar with the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and receive the chalice there. It would seem an attractive alternative, but many coeliacs feel self-conscious and excessively visible when this is the practice.
The only solution, it seems to me, is a deep renewal in the Irish Church and particularly in its liturgical experience. Almost 200 years after Catholic Emancipation in 1829 after which the first Catholic church buildings came to be built, it is perhaps time to re-visit what the Mass means, how it might be celebrated, particularly for Sundays: what may be omitted and what cannot.
In such a context, the more wide availability of communion from the chalice might be considered. Speaking from personal experience as a pastor in a rural parish, I can record a partial success. I managed to convince people in one church in this parish to support its intrcduction – helped by the experience of Catholics in a neighbouring church where this practice was introduced nearly 20 years ago and which succeeding priests have maintained in the years since. The argument that won favour in my local church was: ‘If the people of the neighbouring parish can have communion under both species every week, why can’t we?’
Such communion was then introduced on a trial basis for the Easter season, retained afterwards and still occurs. The parish’s coeliacs are of course delighted – instead of coming to receive with the ministers in the full view of the whole church, they walk in the communion procession but go straight to the chalice-bearing minister, and receive Christ’s body and blood there discreetly. It is as if, far from standing out, the parish’s coealiacs have disappeared.
My success is only partial, however. In the other parish church, where there are likely to be an equal number of coeliacs, communion from the chalice is viewed as a wonderful priviledge, but one not to celebrate too often, lest its wonder be diluted. On particular Sundays of the year, communion under both kinds is given, but a more widespread availability attracts resistance.
I don’t know if the practice will last in the parish. I wonder if my successor would maintain what I have introduced if I were to be moved. I cannot be sure he would. My heart sinks when I remember another pastor who boasted that he saved a bottle of wine a week by abolishing communion from the chalice in his church. Without a wider renewal of both priests and people, it seems Irish coeliacs have no guarantee that their needs will be fully and discreetly accommodated in their local parish.
This article was first published in The Tablet of 23 June 2012 and is reproduced here with permission of the publisher. See www.thetablet.co.uk for the most recent edition.