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Published: Thursday, 8/26/2004

Communion compromise

ONE would assume in a secular society consumed by materialism that religious institutions would welcome those seeking spiritual growth through faith-based rituals, not erect barriers to discourage the faithful.

But churches are not immune to human failings that sometimes place more emphasis on adhering to custom than ministering with compassion.

Witness what should not be a dilemma in the Catholic Diocese of Trenton, N.J. A young girl hoped to take her First Communion. Her problem is she suffers from a rare digestive disorder that could become lethal if she eats any wheat or grain product containing a food protein called gluten.

But when 8-year-old Haley Waldman, diagnosed with celiac sprue disease, a genetic intolerance to gluten, asked to substitute the standard wheat wafer of the sacrament with a rice Communion wafer, her pastor refused. Rules are rules and Roman Catholic church doctrine demands that Communion wafers have some unleavened wheat.

Still, a priest at a nearby parish, apparently believing the greater importance of the sacrament lay not in the type of wafer it used but in the event it commemorates, volunteered to minister to the special needs of Haley and her mother, who had not taken Communion since she, too, was diagnosed with the celiac disease.

That should have been the end of the story, until the diocese decided to weigh in and declare Haley's First Communion invalid because a substitute wafer replaced the customary one.

Trenton Bishop John M. Smith released a statement saying the issue of the one, true wafer had "already been decided for the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world by Vatican authority." In essence, those who wanted to practice their religion would have to compromise their health to do so.

But when celiac sufferers like Haley consume wheat, gluten damages the lining of their small intestines, blocks nutrient absorption, and promotes a host of other problems including gastrointestinal cancer. Doesn't compassion suggest a reasonable exception to the church rule on wafers?

It shouldn't take papal intervention or a summit of high-ranking prelates in Rome to clear the way for a hopeful third-grader to receive First Communion in a form without risk.

We'll pray they figure it out.

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