BRIELLE, N.J. – An 8-year-old girl who suffers from a rare digestive disorder and cannot eat wheat has had her first Holy Communion (search) declared invalid because the wafer contained no wheat, violating Roman Catholic doctrine.
Now, Haley Waldman's (search) mother is pushing the Diocese of Trenton (search) and the Vatican to make an exception, saying the girl's condition should not exclude her from the sacrament, which commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. The mother believes a rice Communion wafer would suffice.
"It's just not a viable option. How does it corrupt the tradition of the Last Supper? It's just rice versus wheat," said Elizabeth Pelly-Waldman.
Church doctrine holds that Communion wafers (search), like the bread served at the Last Supper, must have at least some unleavened wheat. Church leaders are reluctant to change anything about the sacrament.
"This is not an issue to be determined at the diocesan or parish level, but has already been decided for the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world by Vatican (search) authority," Trenton Bishop John M. Smith said in a statement last week.
Haley was diagnosed with celiac sprue disease (search) when she was 5. The disorder occurs in people with a genetic intolerance of gluten, a food protein contained in wheat and other grains.
When consumed by celiac sufferers, gluten (pronounced GLOO'-ten) damages the lining of the small intestine, blocking nutrient absorption and leading to vitamin deficiencies, bone-thinning and sometimes gastrointestinal cancer.
The diocese has told Haley's mother that the girl can receive a low-gluten wafer, or just drink wine at Communion, but that anything without gluten does not qualify. Pelly-Waldman rejected the offer, saying her child could be harmed by even a small amount of the substance.
Haley's Communion controversy isn't the first. In 2001, the family of a 5-year-old Massachusetts girl with the disease left the Catholic church after being denied permission to use a rice wafer.
Some Catholic churches allow no-gluten hosts, while others do not, said Elaine Monarch, executive director of the Celiac Disease Foundation, a California-based support group for sufferers.
"It is an undue hardship on a person who wants to practice their religion and needs to compromise their health to do so," Monarch said.
The church has similar rules for Communion wine. For alcoholics, the church allows a substitute for wine under some circumstances, however the drink must still be fermented from grapes and contain some alcohol. Grape juice is not a valid substitute.
Haley, a shy, brown-haired tomboy who loves surfing and hates wearing dresses, realizes the consequences of taking a wheat wafer.
"I'm on a gluten-free diet because I can't have wheat. I could die," she said last week.
Last year, as the third grader approached Holy Communion age in this Jersey Shore town, her mother told officials at St. Denis Catholic Church in Manasquan that the girl could not have the standard host.
After the church's pastor refused to allow a substitute, a priest at a nearby parish volunteered to offer one, and in May, Haley wore a white Communion dress, and received the sacrament alongside her mother, who had not taken Communion since she herself was diagnosed with the disease.
Last month, the diocese told the priest that the church would not validate Haley's sacrament because of the substitute wafer.
"I struggled with telling her that the sacrament did not happen," said Pelly-Waldman. "She lives in a world of rules. She says 'Mommy, do we want to break a rule? Are we breaking a rule?'"
Pelly-Waldman is seeking help from the Pope and has written to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, challenging the church's policy.
"This is a church rule, not God's will, and it can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of the people, while staying true to the traditions of our faith," Pelly-Waldman wrote in the letter.
Pelly-Waldman — who is still attending Mass every Sunday with her four children — said she is not out to bash the church, just to change the policy that affects her daughter.
"I'm hopeful. Do I think it will be a long road to change? Yes. But I'm raising an awareness and I'm taking it one step at a time," she said.