Born and raised Catholic, I was always fascinated with the Eucharist wafers that my family and I ate every Sunday at church. My adventure started one year at summer camp when I was ten, when a priest gave me a tupperware container full of the little round chips of unleavened bread and advised me to “snack on them if you get hungry”. I remember feeling uncomfortable since I was always told to treat the little wafers as the body of Christ. Roman Catholicism teaches “transubstantiation” meaning that the bread and wine served at Catholic Mass are transformed into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ. Most other Christian identities believe that the bread and wine is a metaphorical representation of Jesus, like at my Grandma’s church where I got grape juice and crackers.
As I watched people lining up to receive the communion of flavorless wafers and sweet wine, I started to ask to myself, “How are these unleavened alter breads made? Where do they come from?” Just like so many other food writers and journalists have been doing tracking down the production of corn or the hamburger, I wanted to take a journey to learn about these wafers that Catholics eat all the time. With a little bit of Internet research, here is what I found out on my Eucharist Adventure:
What are Communion Wafers made of?
They can made in different sizes and shapes, the most common being round wafers with a diameter of 1.5 inches up to around 3 inches. Normally there is big ceremonial wafer that the priest uses to bless over the smaller ones and breaks into smaller pieces and feeds to the communion bearers. There are some differences between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics, mostly that our buddies over in Russia, Eastern Europe, Middle East use leavened bread and at times serve both the wine and bread at the same time with a spoon.
Here is a simple set of rules I found in the Catechism on how to make alter breads:
- Made of wheaten flour, (canon law 924) states that it can not be spoiled
- mixed with pure natural water,
- baked in an oven, or between two heated iron moulds, and
- they must not be corrupted (Miss. Rom., De Defectibus, III, 1).
- Here’s more detail: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01349d.htm
Who makes them?
When I was a little kid in my CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) class, I was always told that Nuns made the wafers that we eat every Sunday. But do they?
Traditionally, Nuns did make alter breads by hand but over the years it has become more mechanized. There are even large companies that specialize in “mass” producing the communion wafers for churches. One interesting article I found shows how the complications of regulations come into play:
Another of the prescriptions to emerge from Vatican II was that the wafers be uncontaminated during production. In a fortuitous convergence of doctrine between the Food and Drug Administration and the Catholic Church, the Cavanagh Company has taken “contamination” to mean human touch, and the company maintains a fully-automated production process where employees are forbidden from laying their hands on the wafers. “I feel pretty strongly that the host should not be touched,” Dan said. His view makes it easier to comply with legal guidelines for industrial food production, but it also gives the company something to market. “Our wafers are untouched by human hands,” boasts one promotional brochure. “That gets my dander up,” a Sister in Clyde told the Chicago Tribune: The Sisters’ touch gives what other businesses would call “added value.”
Since there are fewer sisters making alter breads (and devoting their lives to a monastery life for that matter), the Clyde Monastery has many sisters with science and technical degrees using modern technology to pump out 2 million wafers a week. Here is a short video of modern day sisters making the alter breads.
Just like in other sectors of food production, there seems to be a fear and discomfort of technology producing our food. I am the first to agree that we have lost touch with our food. Do you think that alter breads need to made by the hands of Nuns? Would it be OK if communion wafers were mass-produced in a factory and priest blessed the batches? Should we be against technology? Are we willing to pay more for “Made by Nuns”? If any, we should be curious about all the neat–and at times odd–contraptions people invent. In the communion supplies world, there are many gadgets that are not necessary but are interesting to look at and speculate as to their utility. Here are a couple examples of items of questionable communion products:
Creamer sized cups of Eucharist?
The slick “Apple” style line up of communion supplies including staple gun wafer dispensers and the all new “Blood and Body Pillow Pack” are being produced by Purity Solutions.
To be honest, I was surprised to see all the variety of products and information about communion wafers on my Eucharist Adventure. What I found most interesting is the push for Nuns to find new markets via the creation of new artisan style wafers with custom design for churches. Maybe they can make collector sets? Just like how we used to collect Pogs. Or get Vatican approval to make wafers out of different grains? Rice or corn maybe? Maybe they can put caramel candy in between them and sell them to little kids. Wait… they already have those in Mexico.