Our First Eucharist Preparation year ended with a wonderful celebration mass with Fr. Adams. The beginning of the year was not so smooth, and as other Catholic celiac families ask me for hints, I have started coming up with a wish-list of things I wish I had thought of before the preparation year and things for the special day.
1. Welcoming first impression.
My first suggestion for going through First Eucharist with a Celiac child, would be to start the year out with a simple home lesson to talk about the coming special year. Nate and I had this conversation, but only after a mini incident at R.E. happened. After years of making "wheat" the bad guy that makes you sick, we entered a year of banners of wheat shafts, loaves of bread, and much imagery of how special bread is to eat. All of a sudden, Nathan wanted to be part of this incredibly delicious feast he was hearing about, yet his experiences with wheat were pain and discomfort. What a mixed image and message.
Each family addresses the gluten issue in different ways, often depending on the age of gluten-free onset. For us, Nate was very young and had never really remembered the "wheat days." Our chat was to focus away from the strong emphasis of the wheat and grapes, and to focus on the host and wine, or to examine Christ's Body and Blood lessons. When all of the other kids made banners of wheat and grapes, Nate made pictures of the host and the chalice of wine. We were careful as I did not want to implant the idea that the wheat was being replaced, as Catholics we do not replace with rice or other grain wafers.
I wish there was some way to know ahead of time when a parent was planning to surprise the class with birthday cupcakes or a special treat. Nate is a good sport, but he too wishes to be part of the event, and a "special treat" from my purse is not exactly the same as a fluffy frosted cupcake with a magic ring stuck in the top. I let the teachers and director know that we wanted to be aware of special food days, but I should have also let the parents know that I would bring replacement items, or provide a list of specific foods that would be acceptable for gluten free eaters.
Short and simple gluten-free information and educational note:
"Nate is gluten intolerant (Celiac) and would love to be included in special food events. Please call me at home, and I would be happy to bring equivalent foods. If you wish to bring gluten-free items here are a few suggestions:
Any fruit and vegetables.
Glutano or Pamela cookies found in the Health Food section at our local grocery stores.
Ice cream is a great gluten-free addition to your special cake. Ice cream cups or Umqua, Breyers, Tillamook Brand of vanilla ice cream are gluten-free. (Ice cream cakes don't work as they usually have cake and ice cream touching.)
Thank you so much for helping to include Nathan in your special event."
Our local parish priest was not interested in celebrating with a low-gluten host; he had never heard of such a thing. I brought in the paper from the American Bishops and he still was not convinced that this was approved. The priest from our second parish, the parish I work at, was very familiar and willing. Nathan ended up having his retreat with these children and receiving his First Eucharist with Fr. Adams at a different parish than our own. It was the day that was special, Eucharist was the focus; the group pictures and friends were not the center of our day. Our god-parents and extended family came with us to help make this a really special Christ-filled day.
4. Retreat Day.
I wish that there was some way for the kids to make a simple version of wine at the retreat as well as the little loaves of bread. Surely, there is a wine making kit! Our Religious Education director does a wonderful job talking about how bread was made at the time of the Last Supper, how we make bread today, where the ingredients are found in nature (sugar could come from honey/bees etc.), and where we can find them in modern stores. Being an educator, I love to make things hands-on for my students. Nate is a great sport, he willingly watched from the side, but to do it over, I would search out this additional activity.
I wish that one of the teachers had been a bit more careful when telling the class, "If you don't eat the host, you are going to die, and never live again." (John 6) Granted, I know what she meant spiritually, but for a young celiac child, her lesson was taken very literal and immediate. In Nate's mind, if he doesn't eat the host, he might not make it to his next birthday, to Cub Scouts, to Christmas, to the baseball season. Much of our music and liturgy is focused on "Eating the Bread of Life." Yet for a child with celiac, eating the regular host, is not physically life-giving, but life-draining.
With a little explanation, or use of some of the other scripture references in the gospels, the emphasis can be on "eating the Body, becoming alive in Christ, life everlasting with spiritual communion." It has become important for us to express how receiving the Blood of Christ from the cup, is equal and as valid when received alone or when received with the low-gluten wafer. On those Sundays or situations when the host is not available, Nate use to express how he didn't feel it was complete. During his Eucharist preparation year, I never talked about situations when he could not receive his low gluten host, such as when no wine was present in a communion service or situations when the wine runs out. Since then, I have tried sharing situations when non-celiacs receive spiritual communion when they are unable to receive Eucharist (ie. communicable illness, one of the elements runs out, parent with screaming child pacing the breezeway, a person avoiding alcohol, or a homebound Catholic listening to mass on the radio).
6. The reception.
I wish I had the gift of making a pretty cake, or knew of a cake store for gluten free specialty cakes. Nate did enjoy the fruit platter, the fruit punch, and the cookies we brought along for the event. There are just enough times in life that he watches from the side or substitutes with a gluten-free alternative that this could have been one of those opportunities to bless the event with something special and similar to everyone else's.
For Nate's recent confirmation, I did make a round two tiered cake (from a gluten free mix) with frosting. Younger sister, Emily, and I wrote a special message for him with a cake decorating tool that she had received at Christmas. (Finally, someone in our family will know how to frost a cake!)
Having gone through this so intimately with a family member, I really have a desire to make the lessons and experiences accessible. These suggestions are a few that I continue to offer to our parish and to other families going through this special year.
May these bless another child and help to create a truly holy and wonderful celebration mass.