On Breastfeeding (in church)

On Monday night, I went for a walk with a few of the priests who live with me here in Rome.  We went to get gelato, because it has warmed up to the 50’s, and nothing says 50 degrees like gelato!  On the way, we stopped in front of an antique store to check out some of the religious art they were selling.  One of the priests commented, “They’re even selling a picture of Jesus breast-feeding like you see all over the place here in Rome.”

It seems to be a favorite theme of art, both paintings and statues, that one might not be prepared for walking into the churches of Rome: Mary feeding Jesus.  You will walk into a side chapel at some church, and there she is!


There is another person in Rome who has talked about breastfeeding lately: Pope Francis.  He spoke about an experience going around in the Pope-mobile when he came across a woman with a child that was screaming its head off.  He stopped and said to the woman, “I think he’s hungry.”  He noticed that she was embarrassed to feed the baby in St. Peter’s Square, and he told her not to be afraid.

On Sunday, Pope Francis had these beautiful words to say to the parents of the children he would baptized on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord:

Today the choir will sing but the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the infants who will make a noise. Some will cry because they are not comfortable or because they are hungry. If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice. Because they are the most important people here.

The headline came out, “Pope tells mothers they can breastfeed their babies inside the Sistine Chapel.”  That’s our man of the year!

Francis Man of the Year

A last example: My friend Father Mike just got back from Christmas vacation in Uganda, where he went with one of his classmates from the Pontifical Biblical Institute.  Among other things that were new and different for him, he mentioned the fact that all the mothers after Mass were on the lawn of the church breastfeeding their children.  After an initial shock–especially at their lack of “modesty”–he reasoned to himself, “That is what they (breast, not women) are for after all.”

At this point, I am feeling the irony of the fact that I write a blog called “via experientiae”, the way of experience, and I am writing about something I will never experience.  More or less, these three examples form the background of something I read this week that would never have hit me the way it did if I had not heard these there stories.  Isn’t that the way things work?  The events of our life, the people and situation in which we find ourselves, prepare the ground for the Lord to plant His word in our life.  It is the Lord who comes in these events and tills the soil of our hearts, so that His grace can penetrate.

The Lord’s word came in a beautiful commentary I am reading on St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians by Adrienne von Speyr, the Swiss mystic and spiritual writer.  Von Speyr reflects on the mystery of the human body in three steps: the body of the Redeemer, Christ; the body of the Virgin Mary; and the body of the individual Christian, according to the beautiful phrase of Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II), 22:  “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”

The body of the Redeemer, Christ:

The blood assumed by the Son of God…is not indifferent; it is from the very outset the blood of the redeemer, blood that is to be shed in love, which therefore contains the fullness of holiness, just as the entire flesh, the entire human nature of the Son is also earmarked for the redemption.

Christ took on flesh and blood, and as God Incarnate, this body was totally at the disposal of the Father’s saving plan, which is our redemption.  God the Father gives us everything in God the Son, and this is summed up in Christ’s giving everything for us on the Cross, the handing over of His flesh and blood.

The body of the Virgin Mary:

She bore the blood of the redemption in herself, and while doing so she came to understand that her own body was holy; that her entire service in the body–during her pregnancy or in the household or in the service of the Cross, in every service that was asked of her–was always service of God.

Mary’s vocation was to be so caught up in closeness to the mission of her Son Jesus that nothing belonged to her anymore, “because everything was harnessed into an uninterrupted service of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  This “harnessing” would only be slavery if it did not spring from the eternal love of God, the love which makes demands that sometime seem beyond our ability, the love that always provides the grace for every mission.

The bodies of Christians:

The holiness of every human body is measured by whether it is assigned a space within the Lord’s mission of love, even if it is a mission of suffering, sickness, and death….the body, whatever use it is put to, will always have to be an instrument of the Christian’s mission….This thought should educate Christians to great simplicity and naturalness in everything having to do with the body.

As in all things Christian, grace builds on nature and does not destroy it.  The rather simple insight of my friend Father Mike after seeing the women breastfeeding out on the church lawn–“that is what they are for after all”–has been taken up into the “more” of Christ’s grace.   The entire mystery of human life, whether suffering or flourishing, whether growth or death, is “earmarked for the redemption” as von Speyr says.

What John Paul II taught so eloquently and thoroughly over many years in what came to be known as “The Theology of the Body”, our Francis, in his inimitable way, has highlighted with a simple phrase: “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice.”  The body is for love, no matter what is going on with our bodies.  Let us, like Mary, hand ourselves over in love to this loving design of God, that his love may be manifested even in my house, even in my body, today.

P.S.  For a similar reflection in light of our New Year’s resolutions to exercise more and get in shape, I highly recommend the post “Why I Exercise” by my friend Christina Grace Dehan at http://theevangelista.com.


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