Bernardino Luini. **Note: this image is not available to download.

Bernardino Luini. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis says so many touching and interesting and groundbreaking things when he gives interviews that even some fascinating bits can get overlooked amid the daily tide of coverage of the pontiff and the Vatican.

A case in point was this passage from an interview in Sunday’s La Stampa that he gave to Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli. In response to a question about those suffering from hunger Francis replied:

There are so many children that cry because they are hungry. At the Wednesday General Audience the other day there was a young mother behind one of the barriers with a baby that was just a few months old. The child was crying its eyes out as I came past.

The mother was caressing it. I said to her: “Madam, I think the child’s hungry.”

“Yes, it’s probably time…,” she replied.

“Please give it something to eat!” I said.

She was shy and didn’t want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing. I wish to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone.

So Francis is backing breastfeeding in public! That is sure to warm of pro-nursing feminists and maybe raise a few eyebrows among the traditional set.

La Virgen de la Leche y Buen Parto.

La Virgen de la Leche y Buen Parto. RNS photo by Marc Dalma via La Virgen de la Leche y Buen Parto Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/LaVirgendelaLecheyBuenParto)

But is the pope’s suggestion really a novelty? It may be more in keeping with popular tradition. Indeed, the earliest symbol of God’s love for humanity was the infant Jesus at Mary’s breast — as shown in a fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla that was just restored, a project that elicited more commentary about what another fresco may (or may not) have indicated about women priests than about Maria Lactans, as she is known.

What a lovely image — and the St. Peter’s List blog recently posted 20 of them — especially at Christmas time. Yet it was erased even from Catholic imagery after the Protestant Reformation.

As I wrote in a story a year ago about the curious history of breastfeeding Mary:

The cultural shift was so great that even Catholics soon came to regard the breast as an “inappropriate” image for churches. Instead, the sacrifice of the cross – the suffering Jesus – became the dominant motif of Christianity while the Nativity was sanitized into a Hallmark card.

“Ask anybody in the street what’s the primary Christian symbol and they would say the crucifixion,” said Margaret Miles, author of “A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750,” a book that traces the disappearance of the image of the breast-feeding Mary after the Renaissance.

“It was the takeover of the crucifixion as the major symbol of God’s love for humanity” that supplanted the breast-feeding icon, she said. And that was a decisive shift from the earliest days of Christianity when “the virgin’s nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of God’s love for humanity…”

…By the Middle Ages, the breast-feeding Mary was shown in every possible context, and “lactation miracles” and “milk shrines” proliferated across the Christian world. Mary was “the wet-nurse of salvation,” as one phrase had it, offering holy succor to communities exposed to the vagaries of war and disease. Some images of St. Bernard of Clairvaux even show him kneeling in prayer before a statue of Mary, who is squirting breast milk onto his eager lips.

It was all deeply moving to believers of the day, though perhaps too much of a good thing even then. Miesel says that a century before the Reformation, St. Bernardine of Siena quipped that “Mary must have given more milk than a hundred cows.”

Yet once the breast became an object of medical and sexual interest, it quickly vanished as an object of sacred desire.

Can Pope Francis bring it back?

28 Comments

  1. Our faith is completely incarnational – fleshy – about bodies and embodiment – yet those bodies are so often subverted. Is there any more powerful time of the liturgical year to remember that? The Word became flesh, and he was fed from the breast. Every time we shrink from the image of Mary feeding Jesus, or a mother feeding her child, we are averting our gaze away from God.

    • If women were as pure of mind and heart as the blessed mother there would be no question about the beauty of the act of feeding a child. Unfortunately, most women have lost the modesty which allows breastfeeding in public to be an act of motherly love, instead using it to flaunt their sexuality. I have sat next to women who were nursing their babies in public and you would never know it and I have seen others sitting there with their tops down around their waists with both breasts in full view. There is a way to do it beautifully and modestly and I speak as a woman who breastfed her children in public when necessary.

      • Danielle Burgoyne

        Feeding your child in public when necessary? When a child is hungry they need to be fed, you cannot force a breastfeeding child to eat when they do not wish to. Surely you also know about the benefits of skin to skin for both mother and child, this mother may have had to overcome many obsticles to have built up the courage to feed in public. Modesty does not come into it, it is our modern society and sexualisation of the breast that is the issue. Any mother feeding their child is an act of love, including formula feeding.

  2. Life of O'Reilly

    Bravo to Pope Francis. The more I hear of him, the more I like him. I am a Catholic mother and I always nursed my babies during Mass. If I hadn’t, they would have been screaming, and then what would have been point in being there? I am modest and discreet by nature, so it was never even noticed. The only comments I ever received were how angelic my baby looked sleeping in my arms.

  3. Burton Everist

    “Let us, then, meditate upon the Nativity just as we see it happening in our own babies. I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather his flesh. Look upon the baby Jesus. Divinity may terrify mortals. Inexpressible majesty will crush us. ….
    Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother, still a virgin. What can be sweeter than the Babe, what more lovely than the mother! What fairer than her youth! What more gracious than her virginity! Look at the Child, knowing nothing! Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of the maiden. Laugh with him. ….
    To me there is not greater consolation given to humankind than this, that Christ became human, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to judge this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save. –Martin Luther, paraphrased from Martin Luther’s Christmas Book edited by Roland H. Bainton

  4. I love this! So helpful and affirming and sensible.

    I agree that there are spiritual riches to be found in the practice and contemplation of breastfeeding.

    I had a lovely, affirming experience of breastfeeding a wriggling toddler during a service at Canterbury Cathedral, and wrote about it here, if anyone’s interested: http://sacraparental.com/2013/06/18/the-sacrament-of-breastfeeding-2-sung-and-suckled-eucharist/

  5. I am a Nurse-Midwife for 43 years and of course breastfeeding is only a most natural thing which we promoted strongly. But most women liked to use some cover while breastfeeding, and those cover shawls could be very pretty. Paintings with Mary breastfeeding and showing Her nipples is only perceived in the mind of the artist it’s not a portrait or actual reproduction of what they saw Mary do. So I’m pretty sure that Mary was not attracting people’s attention.
    Nowadays -it’s a new thing- we have to ask the patient if she allows us to touch her breast > what’s going on in the sick mind of nowadays world< women knew that when you helped them with the breastfeeding you touch their breasts, after all you explain the whole plan of care before you even start doing a procedure.
    That whole so called "humble thing, see how humble I am" disgusts me
    "Look how humble I am, I ride a donkey NOT a jaguar" Doesn't the Bible teach us that your left hand shouldn't know what your right hand gives !!!
    I say all those philanthropists received their rewards already here on earth. There are people that do greater things but in silence and will receive their reward in Heaven.
    Riki

  6. Hi สวัสดี ฉันคิดว่า ฉันเห็น คุณเยี่ยมชม บล็อก ของฉัน บล็อก ฉัน จึง มาถึง ” กลับชอบ ” ฉัน .
    ความพยายามที่จะ ค้นหาสิ่ง ที่จะ ปรับปรุง ของฉัน เพิ่ม
    เว็บไซต์ ฉันคิดว่า ตกลงที่จะใช้
    บางส่วนของ บางส่วนของ ความคิดของคุณ !

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  8. Do it Audrey. I breastfed in church. I mean, screaming baby or happy baby- easy choice. Plus if the party line is have a bunch of babies, well, you gotta feed um somehow. I once took communion with him latched on under a nursing wrap. Nothing about it felt wrong to me.

  9. Peter Dawson

    My wife and I once asked a pacific island priest in our parish what the island women did with their babies at mass – his reply? “They breastfed them to keep them quiet”!

  1. […] Although it so often is, the public intimacy of breastfeeding hasn’t always been so shocking to us. It wasn’t always the case that the Pope needed to encourage mothers to breastfeed during Church.3 Religion writer David Gibson, in fact, contends that “the earliest symbol of God’s love for humanity was the infant Jesus at Mary’s breast,” going so far as to note that it was only during the Reformation that the crucifixion had supplanted the breast-feeding image of Mary. […]

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