All of us know what altar bread looks like. But why? And how is it made?
Today’s altar breads — also called “hosts” — are unleavened. This means they contain no yeast, so the dough does not rise.
Modern hosts, in many ways, resemble modern matzah — cracker-like bread used by Jews at Passover and made from unleavened wheat and water.
The Catholic Encyclopedia calls this type of bread “azyme” (a Hebrew word for matzah) and notes that it was the “bread of affliction,” since it could be baked “on the run” during the flight from Egypt.
Wheat flour, in Jesus’ time, was expensive and was not used every day. Daily bread was made of barley. The Passover feast coincides with the start of the barley harvest. Today, modern Jews eat unleavened “Passover bread” at the holiday meal’s end, just as they did in Jesus’ day. This is the type of bread recorded in the synoptic gospels and Paul’s account of the Last Supper (First Letter to the Corinthians).
Early Christians followed the pattern of this Last Supper: a full meal followed by “the breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42). There seems not to have been an emphasis on the type of bread, but on the sharing of that bread.
These first meals were held in Christian homes and food was shared by rich and poor. The blessed bread from the meal was taken to those who could not attend, usually the sick. As Christianity switched from a fringe (and often persecuted sect) to an official religion under Roman law in the fourth century, the faithful continued to supply the bread for liturgies, which had moved from their homes to churches.
In the Western church, the use of bread changed after the fall of the Roman Empire in the eighth century. (In the Eastern church, a single loaf of leavened bread is still used today.) Unleavened bread in smaller form became preferred for various reasons. Most notable was an increasing view of the consecrated bread as an object of veneration. This led to bread no longer made by the people, but prepared by clerics and religious under increasingly strict guidelines.
Host presses — which formed small, circular wafers — date to at least the sixth century. However, these pressed breads were still larger and thicker than modern hosts, since each host (about six inches in diameter) was still broken and shared by those gathered for the celebration.
According to Capuchin Fr. Edward Foley, a professor of liturgy at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, later hosts were made in two sizes: one for the priest and smaller ones for communicants. By the 14th century, host baking became a completely regulated church matter, with hosts still made of unleavened flour and were uniformly small, white and flat.
At the Carmel des Lisieux in France, where St. Therese of Lisieux was a nun from 1888 until her death in 1897, altar breads were made. The archives at the Carmel monastery note that they were formed in iron molds that needed to be cleaned while hot and scoured with sand and bricks.
“The flour should be of the best kind,” the archives also note, “from very fresh wheat that has been finely ground. The water that is to be used should be sparkling (that is, have gas in it) and hard (that is, rich in minerals). The source of the water should be a fountain or a well. Rainwater will not do. When the flour is well mixed, one takes a spoonful of it and pours it in the iron and then places the iron on the fire. The time for baking would be about that of an Ave Maria (a “Hail Mary”) for each side when the fire is in good condition; because if the fire is not quite glowing it will take longer.”
At this time, from the fall of Rome into the 19th and 20th centuries, reception of Communion remained rare. When the Second Vatican Council renewed the practices of the Mass — resulting in changes enacted in 1969 — reception of the Eucharist was given high importance. This concern for more frequent reception started before the council and was especially important to St. Pius X (pope from 1903 to 1924) who promoted frequent reception of the Eucharist.
As Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”) noted, “The Lord left behind a pledge of this hope and strength for life’s journey in that sacrament of faith where natural elements refined by man are gloriously changed into his body and blood, providing a meal of brotherly solidarity and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet” (n. 38).
Through all of this, altar bread production by religious communities continued. Today, some communities still make altar breads, using a combination of traditional and modern equipment. Other altar breads are made by secular companies, such as Cavanagh Company in Greenville, R.I.
The Cistercians Sisters of St. Rita Abbey in Soncita, Ariz., started making altar bread when their abbey was founded in 1972. They started with “one baking plate, a one-at-a-time people’s host cutter, and a handful of altar bread parish customers,” their website notes.
Today, the Cistercians say they bake altar bread for more than 300 churches in the United States and use a computerized cutting machine for the hosts.
At the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Monastery of St. Clare in Langhorne, Pa., the sisters have baked altar bread for more than 100 years. They claim to be “the first to produce a low-gluten bread approved by the Catholic Church for those suffering from Celiac disease.”
Last fall, they told Catholic News Service (CNS) that their ministry of altar breads coincides with their vocation of adoration. They do their work in silence using Italian-made machines to make the dough and a drying oven. While they work, the sisters pray in silence for those who will receive the bread they make.
“Our main work is always prayer,” Sr. Anne Bartol told CNS. “That’s how we’ve been called to give ourselves to God for the world.”
It is the same for the Cistercian sisters— prayer and work. Their website assures those they serve that “we keep all our altar bread customers in our daily prayer, most especially at the Eucharist.”
Sources: catholicnews.com; General Instruction of the Roman Missal; The Catholic Encyclopedia; the documents of Vatican II; Judaism 101 at jewfaq.org; santaritaabbey.org/altar-breads; archives-carmel-lisieux.fr/english/carmel and cavanaghco.com.