Bread for the Eucharist

In a post, I published last week, I dealt with the problem of using a big host as opposed to the exceptional small precut hosts (which I reckon make up well over 99.9% of how Catholics receive Communion). While it must be admitted that these hosts have become more breadlike over the last decades, bigger options and wholewheat options are available. However, I must admit that the prepared hosts hold no romanticism for me, particularly after I came across this article a few years ago on the not so mainstream spirituality website Killing the Buddah.

With this post, I want to take things further. The Eastern Churches usually use bread that has been baked. Here I am proposing that we consider something similar in the Latin Church. There is nothing in canon law or the current rubrics against parishes arranging for baked bread for the Eucharist. The main requirement is clear. The bread for the Eucharist must be of wheat and unleavened. The current GIRM puts it like this:

  1. The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently made, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.
  2. By reason of the sign, it is required that the material for the Eucharistic Celebration truly have the appearance of food. Therefore, it is desirable that the Eucharistic Bread, even though unleavened and made in the traditional form, be fashioned in such a way that the Priest at Mass with the people is truly able to break it into parts and distribute these to at least some of the faithful. However, small hosts are not at all excluded when the large number of those receiving Holy Communion or other pastoral reasons call for them. Moreover, the gesture of the fraction or breaking of bread, which was quite simply the term by which the Eucharist was known in apostolic times, will bring out more clearly the force and importance of the sign of the unity of all in the one bread, and of the sign of charity by the fact that the one bread is distributed among the brothers and sisters.

In the wake of the Council most worshipping communities continued to use small pre-cut hosts, although as early as 1967 Eucharisticum mysterium the instruction on Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery speaks of the possibility of baking a large host reminding that care be taken in the baking so that it be “of a form and appearance worthy of the eucharistic mystery.” The Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was published in 1970 September 5, 1970. Among the topics it dealt with was the new practices of using a type of bread that was closer to people’s everyday experience of bread than had previously been the case. It that the bread for the Eucharist be real bread, giving the following instruction:

The necessity for the sign to be genuine applies more to the color, taste and texture of the bread than to its shape. Out of reverence for the sacrament, every care and attention should be used in preparing the altar bread. It should be easy to break and should not be unpleasant for the faithful to eat. Bread which tastes of uncooked flour, or which becomes dry and inedible too quickly, must never be used. The breaking of the consecrated bread and the receiving of the bread and wine, both at communion and in consuming what remains after communion, should be conducted with the greatest reverence

Liturgicae instaurationes 5

As with any custom that is resurrected after more than a millennium of absence there were some growing pains, in this case some over-zealous bakers added some ingredients to make the bread taste better. Obviously, this was wrong and could not continue. In 1979 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. As the validity of the sacrament is of paramount importance the letter warned that “where there is question of slight additions (e.g. salt, condiments) the matter will be valid but illicit; where there is question of substitution of all or a large quantity of water by other liquids (e.g., milk, eggs, honey, etc.) the matter will be invalid.”

However the need for pure elements must be balanced with a realistic attitude towards their preparation. In some places in the middle ages that the bread from the Eucharist had to be prepared by virgin male monks, as bread prepared by a woman or someone who was not a virgin was not considered proper. The spiritual context of the Middle Ages is not the same as our own. Today we need to prepare the bread and wine for the Eucharist in line with the received tradition (naturally giving pride of place to the requirements for sacramental validity), but we cannot ignore the sensibilities of our own time. Today we know that from a scientific point of view it is impossible to have absolutely pure elements. Any wheat-flour will have some amount of additives, even if these are on the microscopic level. Even the water that we use for the mixing of the dough will have certain impurities in it. These impurities will also be present in commercially produced hosts, which if placed under a microscope will show some impurities, in common with virtually every substance in creation. Therefore, the problem is what constitutes too many impurities.

When dealing with the matter of validity today modern Canonists often make reference to Dominus Salvator Noster a 1929 instruction issued by the Congregation of the Sacraments.[1] Here speaking of this problem it advises the use of the yardstick of “common estimation” in deciding if a particular piece of bread or wine is valid for the celebration of the Eucharist. Part I of the Instruction gives this advice:

It follows that bread made of any other substance, or to which has been added so great a quantity of any other substance than wheat that according to common estimation it cannot be said to be wheat bread, cannot be valid matter for the performance of the Sacrifice and the consecration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

So considering a particular piece of bread if the judgment is made that the substance is something other than wheat bread (as, for example, a muffin, cake, chocolate chip cookie or corn bread), then it is invalid, even if it is mainly made of wheat flour. On the other hand, bread prepared using a normal flour from a supermarket would be considered valid matter, even though the flour may well contain some additives. However, it would be better to use a high quality flour that has absolutely no additives or preservatives and be as close to pure as humanly possible (and obviously for Western Christians it is important that the flour not be self-raising). Perhaps using organic flour should be considered, from the point of view of a desire of giving the best for the Lord in the liturgy, given that it tends to contain far fewer chemicals that are absorbed during the growing process in commercial farming from pesticides, fertilizers, etc. It is of little consequence of the flour is white, brown or wholemeal (as all of these can be derived from milled pure wheat grain). Other than the need to use bread made from wheat flour, the main requirement is that it be the best bread possible. There is no particular description of the bread used by Jesus in the Last Supper, but it would seem that it would have been baked from white flour.

Much more could be said on this topic, and I hope that advantage will be taken of the last few days of the option to comment on PrayTell. But I must leave this post here. I am interested how widespread the use of baked bread (as opposed to commercially produced hosts) is in various places. I suspect that the admitted difficulty in preparing such bread has limited its use. As usual the tendency to go for the easiest option has proven to be a mortal enemy of meaningful liturgy. Indeed, I wonder how much theological consideration was given to the adoption of wafers rather than bread during the 1300’s when their use became widespread. I cannot believe that by using commercially produced hosts, we are automatically guaranteed absolutely pure bread. In answer to those afraid to use baked bread, I  counter that the need for reverence and respect, demands that we strive to have the best possible bread for the Eucharist and not simply opt for a commercially produced version because it is easier.

[1] Dominus Salvator Noster, 26 March 1929, AAS 21 (1929) 631-639; English translation in Canon Law Digest: Officially Published Documents Affecting The Code Of Canon Law (Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co, 1934), Volume1 page 353-367.

Cover art: Small struggled wheat bread of Castrillo de Villavega (Palencia, Castile and León)., from Wikimedia Commons

18 thoughts on “Bread for the Eucharist

  1. Thank you, Father. I think the generation that got engaged in parish bread-baking has been passing from the scene with fewer successors, and it’s not clear to me that succeeding generations care as much about the issue. I also suspect that, proportionally, the people who are very active in parish life are more likely now than 40 years ago to be comprised of people who may learn about what I shall here call the Crumbs Issue from online conversation, and therefore that there are likely to be a greater proportion of parish folks who might pause – and parish ministers will need to be fully prepared to deal with that, and not simply by using a position of authority to waive it off and dismiss it. In such a situation, might reintroducing patens to the administration of Communion in the hand help?

    1. Thanks Karl
      What you say is probably true. Obviously the greatest care must be taken with crumbs. St Cyril says to treat them like gold dust. I don’t think patens are necessary. The nature of Communion as instituted by Christ has a certain amount of risk. But this is the condition of the Incarnation. Jesus was badly mistreated and crucified, yet he still became incarnate. Likewise the perishable elements of bread and wine are subject to danger and loss as well. Yet He chose them for the Sacrament precisely because they were perishable and could be “touched and broken by the hands of priests and ground by the teeth of the faithful, not merely in a sacramental but in a real manner” (Oath of Berengarius). I don’t think a pattern is warranted, but I’d be willing to accept it, if it meant a widespread use of baked bread in our parishes.

      1. Thank you for your gracious reply.

        Just imagine, with the end of this site as a discussion board, there are even fewer places where algorithms will direct American congregants who wonder about the Crumbs Issue to anything much more than warnings about the risks of administration of communion in the hand. I think ministers need to be prepared for engaging congregants whose liturgical formation is increasingly effectively dominated by perspectives that are not like yours or mine or many here at Pray Tell.

  2. When I was in college 20 years ago, we had an active eucharistic bread-baking ministry. A few years later, I was honored to make unleavened bread for my friend’s wedding using grain she had grown. In my current parish that is mostly influenced by EWTN and now uses patens for most masses, using a bread that has crumbs would be heretical and the individual suggesting it would be in need of catechesis (per parish leaders). It’s refreshing to read this article and comments. As someone who loves the earthiness of baking bread, I would love to have a bread-baking ministry in our parish.

  3. Karl

    I share your sadness at the loss of the discussion option. But I hope you will continue with us in the future (and I am easy to find if anyone needs to contact me).

    At 51 I still refuse to be categorized as an old person.And while I can see many reasons to lose hope, I refuse to give up on the liturgical project of the Second Vatican Council.

    I believe that good liturgy will speak to people and give life (regardless of their age). It will inspire people to waste their time and energies in promoting it (like the jar of costly ointment that is “wasted” on Jesus’ feet). More importantly, liturgy gives life and people in every generation will discover its power. If it comes from the Lord it will thrive, algorithms and reactionary tendencies be dammed!

  4. “In answer to those afraid to use baked bread, I counter that the need for reverence and respect, demands that we strive to have the best possible bread for the Eucharist and not simply opt for a commercially produced version because it is easier.”

    I have the privilege of attending a small monastery with a small-ish congregation. Although Covid revealed, through Zoom, there are many now living worldwide who are members. The best possible bread? I listen and eat up the reflections of our Collatio group on Saturday morning. And, we almost always share a baked bread for Eucharist: “taste and see” indeed. Still, the monks are occupied, time runs short and sometimes we share a commercial bread. It’s still good. I’m not always the freshest slice either, when I attend.
    As for crumbs: we’re all as respectful as possible. Accidents happen. Christ laughs. There are far lager concerns.
    I too regret the end of discussions on PrayTell. Over the years I’ve rubbed some folks the wrong way at times and I’m sorry for that. I have the deepest respect for all the contributors here and am glad to have been allowed to contribute my small reflections. I’m surprised at myself for having the gumption to join into this group of people who clearly are more accomplished and knowledgeable than I. Thanks.

  5. At 70 and a life-long Catholic, who attended one of the most progressive seminaries in the USA in the late 70’s, I can say with all honesty that the discussion of what kind of bread should be used for the Most Holy Eucharist no longer rocks me nor do I think we need to go backwards to the 70’s to recover homemade bread for Mass. My seminary used baked bread with ingredients in it that may well have invalidated the Mass similar to made up words for baptism. The same for the parish of my field placement in the seminary. It isn’t wrong to be concerned about crumbs large and small falling all over the place to include the floor or carpet which I witnessed in the 1970’s. The reason for the concern isn’t based upon the mess the crumbs make, but that the real Sacramental Presence of Christ is treated in such a nonchalant way. Today, we need to focus on Christ using the bread prescribed by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. That’s where the focus should be on Christ who is the Bread of Life, not on the recipe for the bread. Rearranging the recipe for bread used at Mass is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic given the abysmal number of Catholics who bother to attend Mass today. Our hope isn’t in the kind of bread used, but in Jesus Christ made present in the Mass. Talk about Him and use the bread recipe that is prescribed in the Modern Roman Missal’s instructions.

    1. Thanks Allan. Just to clarify. I am only proposing what the GIRM itself suggests. Bread that “truly [has] the appearance of food.” This does not need the addition of extra illicit ingredients. But I don’t think we have to chose between a better Eucharistic catechesis and a better experience of this bread. Likewise the issue of crumbs has to be reverently taken care of. I am of the opinion that the Eucharist is worth the effort. Granted this is one aspect, but it is an important aspect of a vital whole. There is a real crisis of Eucharistic faith and practice. Surely the solution must be multi-faceted. Every aspect of the Sacrament needs to be considered and every parish or celebrating assembly needs to endeavor to improve the celebration as much as they can. Improving the quality of bread used int the celebration is not a panacea, but it oughtn’t be reduced to an optional extra.

      1. There are innumerable types of bread throughout the world–and of course all of them are recognizable as food (to someone). Could the question that should be addressed regarding the instruction “bread that truly has the appearance of food,” be: whose food? and who gets to decide what that looks like in the Roman rite? And if it’s still going to remain unleavened.

      2. Putting aside the longstanding use of the Roman Church (also shared by the Armenian Church), there is a practical consideration regarding leavened bread: it’s not practical to reserve, unless someone wants to institute a very widespread practice of intinction, and even then, stale bread is not necessarily a go-to symbol.

  6. “….stale bread is not necessarily a go-to symbol.”

    I was going to write, symbols don’t go stale. But then I thought, well actually they do. Symbols often become cliches, certainly in poetry.

    In our ritual and in our lives and prayer, we need to keep finding fresh baked bread, hot out of the oven, smelling delicious! That’s not easy.

  7. I like the Roman liturgy using the unleavened bread it currently uses. It’s looks like bread but let it is special and unique for the Roman liturgy. I’m Eastern Orthodox by the way.

  8. I will miss the PrayTell comment sections. I have appreciated the insights that Liam, Deacon Fritz, and Fr. Neil (among many others) have provided other the years. God bless you all.

  9. Thanks Devin, and thanks for the many interesting comments you have submitted.

    I too will miss the comments. With any luck they might return in the future.

  10. A big thank you to those who have participated in the comments section. It’s a loss, for sure, but I hope you will continue to visit Pray Tell in its new iteration. There are many (the vast majority, actually) who read but do not comment. Thank you too — keep hanging in there!

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