Mar 15, 2002

Shades of the Seventies: "Wonder bread" Masses

Online Edition – Vol. VIII, No. 1: March 2002

Shades of the Seventies: "Wonder bread" Masses

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

"Last week at Mass I received a lump of something on my tongue that tasted like raisin bread", a reader wrote. "Was this a valid Mass? What should I do?"

In recent months Catholics from around the country have been reporting with increasing frequency that their parishes are using "real" bread (i.e. table bread) instead of Communion hosts. Many are concerned that the validity of the Mass is affected. "Have I really received Christ?", is a frequent question.

Are they right to be concerned? You bet.

Since the release, in July 2000, of the new instructions for celebration of Mass, there has been a revival of liturgical experimentation reminiscent of the nineteen-seventies. "Progressive" liturgists who object to the new rules in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani [IGMR] and other recent liturgical documents issued by the Holy See claim that Catholics need "proper catechesis" before the new regulations for celebration of Mass take full effect.

People are being told that the "new rules" will change many things — so they might as well get used to the changes before the new Roman Missal (which contains the IGMR) is officially released.

Too often, however, these so-called "changes" are not in the new rules at all, but are innovations in direct conflict with the actual rules. The advance "catechesis" project seems strikingly like a revival of seventies-style experimentation and innovation.

One example of this "innovation-as-catechesis" is a resuscitation of the effort to replace traditional Communion hosts with ordinary table bread containing leavening and/or other ingredients in addition to the wheat flour and water prescribed in all the official norms.

"Real food" vs. Real Presence?

"It’s easier to believe that bread really becomes the Body of Christ than it is to believe that the host is really bread", proclaimed Monsignor Paul Turner in a bulletin insert recently reprinted by parishes across the United States.

Turner is a Kansas City, Missouri, pastor who writes bulletin inserts for Ministry and Liturgy (formerly Modern Liturgy) published by Resource Publications ( He maintains that since "the material for the Eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food", ordinary bread should be used at Mass.

Turner notes that "according to the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, Eucharistic bread is unleavened, and made from wheat flour and water", but he intends his readers to believe that hosts in the traditional form are not the "real food" bread that the instructions require.

Notwithstanding his opinion, the rules are very clear. The bread used for Mass must not only "have the appearance of food", it is also to be in the traditional form.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law expressly forbade the use of anything other than unleavened hosts made according to the traditional manner:

924.2. The bread must be made of wheat alone and recently made so that there is no danger of corruption.

926. In accord with the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, the priest is to use unleavened bread in the celebration of the Eucharist whenever he offers it.

The new Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani [IGMR 2000], drawing on these Canons, says the same thing:

IGMR 320. The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be solely from wheat, recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, it must be unleavened (emphasis added).

The phrase "recently baked" means that the bread to be consecrated be "free from spoilage, staleness, etc.". The hosts available at Catholic supply stores comply with this norm. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), in use since 1975 has the same norm as the new IGMR:

GIRM 283. The nature of the sign demands that the material for the Eucharistic celebration have the appearance of food. Accordingly, even though unleavened and baked in the traditional shape, the Eucharistic bread should be made in such a way that in a Mass with a congregation the priest is able actually to break the host into parts and distribute them to at least some of the faithful (emphasis added).

IGMR 321 repeats this verbatim, and continues,

(When, however, the number of communicants is large or other pastoral needs require it, small breads are in no way ruled out.) The action of the breaking of the bread, the simple term for the Eucharist in apostolic times, will more clearly bring out the force and meaning of the sign of the unity of all in the one bread and of their charity, since the one bread is being distributed among the members of one family.

"Real food", thus, means unleavened bread. The large hosts priests use that can be broken and shared among communicants fit this description.

Clearly, despite pressure from some liturgical innovators, other kinds of bread are not to be used for Mass in the Latin rite. There is a good reason for this – besides the obvious problem of consecrated crumbs.

The Church uses unleavened bread made from wheat — the same kind of bread used at Passover in biblical times — because Christ, who transforms the Bread into Himself, is the Passover sacrifice; and His death and resurrection, which are re-enacted at each Mass, is our Exodus — our deliverance from the bondage of sin and death.

It strains the imagination to believe that Monsignor. Turner — or anyone who claims to be an authority on the Liturgy — is unaware of any of this.

Illicit or invalid?

Is there reason to worry about validity of the Sacrament? Can changing the bread invalidate the Mass?

It is illicit for a Latin rite priest to consecrate leavened bread. Obviously, a priest has a serious obligation to observe all rules faithfully. But leavening alone would not necessarily invalidate the Mass. Leavened bread is used by the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern rite Catholics, according to custom, and the Church recognizes the validity of these sacraments.

But the Church also requires that valid matter be used for the Mass. Adding other ingredients to the bread (e.g., honey, milk, shortening, raisins, or flour from other grains) would invalidate the Mass because defective matter was used.

Ecumenism, multiculturalism and theology

Some liturgists argue that, since most Protestant churches use ordinary bread for their Communion services, and the Eastern churches use leavened bread, Catholics should adopt this practice as a sign of ecumenism, of the Church’s desire for full unity with other Christians. (Anglicans and Lutherans use unleavened hosts, by the way.)

Mutliculturists argue that since some cultures use other grains besides wheat for bread, using other flours such as rice or corn would enable the Church to "catechize" other cultures more effectively.

The motivation for renewed pressure to change the form of bread to be consecrated at Mass is, fundamentally, theological. The objective of changing the bread is to lead people to a more "post-Conciliar" theology of the Eucharist. (By "post-Conciliar" proponents mean their own view of the Council, of course.) Traditional unleavened hosts give too much emphasis to the sacrificial dimension of Mass and Communion, they say. Precisely because traditional hosts are not "ordinary food", and are so strongly linked with Christ’s institution of the Sacrifice of the Mass at the Last Supper "on the night before he died", this form of bread itself is seen as an impediment to the goal of transforming ("updating") belief about the most fundamental teaching of the Catholic faith.

Using ordinary bread helps to shift the focus from the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — "body, blood, soul and divinity" — to other "modes of presence", such as Christ’s presence in the gathered community and the "shared meal" as a sign of unity.

Such a truncated view of communio, however, expresses a theological narrowness that lacks the depth and richness of authentic Catholic teaching on the meaning of the Eucharist. An ambiguous "presence" of Christ in the community cannot convey the full meaning of the Mass as our actual participation in a renewal of Christ’s sacrifice which won our salvation. Both the horizontal (sharing) and the vertical (sacrificial) dimensions must be present together, united, in Holy Mass. The potent symbol of participation in a sacred meal in Communion is — and must be — inseparable from the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice by the priest in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.

It is for this Inestimable Gift we give thanks and praise.



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.