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Mary, the Eucharist, and Breastfeeding in the Church

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Matthew 5:8

Is it appropriate for mothers to breastfeed their infant in public? Or at Mass? In some circles this is contended, a source of shame or embarrassment, even asserted to be an issue of modesty. In modern times, it is almost an exclusively American issue, a strange amalgamation of an over-sexualized culture built on a hyper-puritan history with a relevant boost from the huge marketing campaigns against breastfeeding perpetrated by formula companies in the mid-20th century.

This cultural stigma means that often mothers feel embarrassed, ridiculed, stressed, mocked, or worse, even pressured to give breastfeeding up, simply for doing what should be intuitive and virtuous for any mother - feed her baby. One thing we can say for certain, shaming a mother for breastfeeding or declaring the devoted mother nursing her baby as an issue of sexual modesty has nothing Catholic about it.

In fact, and directly opposed to this idea, in the Catholic Church there has been a beautiful tradition since the earliest centuries to meditate on - and depict - Our Lady breastfeeding Jesus. The devotion goes by a multitude of names - Our Lady of la Leche, Nursing Madonna, Breastfeeding Madonna, Our Lady of the Milk, Our Lady of the Nursing Child, Maria Lactans, and more.

There are icons, paintings, statues, murals, even entire churches, that have been devoted to the beautiful reality that Mary, the purest of the pure, breastfed Jesus. The oldest shrine in the United States is even devoted to her in this role. It was she who first taught Him, "This is my body, given up for you."

"Maternity is a natural Eucharist. To every child at her breast, the mother says: “Take ye and eat; this is my body; this is my blood. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall not have life in you.” Our Divine Lord said: “As I live because of the Father, the living Father who has sent me, so he who eats me will live, in his turn, because of me.” (John 6:58) The mother says to her child: “As I live because of Christ, so you will live because of me.” As under the species of bread, day by day, Christ nourishes the Christian, so drop by drop, the mother nourishes the child. As the Divine Eucharist gives immortality (“The man who eats this bread will live eternally.” John 6:59), so this human eucharist of motherhood is the guarantee of temporal life." Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

It was likely she nursed him for about three years and given her culture as well as her virtue, that she nursed him on demand, whenever He needed. If one thinks breastfeeding immodest, impure, scandalous, embarrassing, or likewise, they would by extension be insinuating her in that bias, as well as disparaging the rich Catholic tradition revering the beautiful truth that the Word became Man, so much so that He nursed at the breasts of a woman. It was - and is - seen as worthy of contemplation, meditation, imagination, and emulation.

We need never be embarrassed for imitating her, nursing our own babies when they need it. When this new image of God asks to be fed, we can with confidence give our own fiat, despite what others may think, say, sneer, or assume. It is they who are the ones at odds with traditional Christianity. It is they who must examine their hearts for woundedness, perversion, false teaching, heresy, or sin. When in Mass it is they who by extension must be scandalized at the thought of the Eucharist, we being offered the very real Body and Blood of Jesus as food and drink.

"As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with His own Blood those to whom He Himself has given life." Saint John Chrysostom

Your body is a gift to your baby, in pregnancy and birth, yes, but also designed by God to be one for years afterwards through breastfeeding. This is a beautiful act, a natural one, a theological one. It is not up for those whose eyes and hearts are twisted or darkened to determine when and how we feed our babies as God designed. We can pray for them and love them (and also avoid them if necessary ;) We can rest knowing that God calls us to this work of motherhood and it is to Him we answer first, Him who designed our breasts as food for our hungry babies, Him who called them very good.

"Except where it is quite impossible, it is most desirable that the mother should feed her child at her own breast. Who shall say what mysterious influences are exerted upon the growth of that little creature by the mother upon whom it depends entirely for its development!" Pope Pius XII

Sister, God is not scandalized by you feeding your baby, though others may choose to be offended. It was He who designed your body this way, He who designed your baby this way. It was He who declared it a work of mercy to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, a gift we give unto Him. With good intentions, of course, we can allow Him and His Mother to lead us and guide us and place the needs of the littlest ones above the fallen sensitivities of the others, perhaps giving them a chance to examine and sanctify their own hearts.

"If they’re hungry, breastfeed them, without fear, feed them, because that’s a language of love.” Pope Francis

May Our Lady of la Leche intercede for all breastfeeding mothers and babies. May she intercede on behalf of those whose minds and hearts and eyes need redeeming.

"To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted." Titus 1:15

Below is but a small sampling of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of pieces of beautiful art portraying Our Lady breastfeeding Jesus:

Madonna Lactans by anonymous master of Bruges

Our Lady of la Leche from The National Shrine to Our Lady of la Leche, oldest Catholic shrine in the United States

Image from

Ancient Icon by Unknown Artist

Madonna enthroned with Child by Provincial Master

Virgin and Child by Bernard van Orley

Nursing Madonna by anonymous

Virgin and Child by Pedro Berruguete

Nursing Madonna by Nicolás García Osorio

Madonna Nursing the Child by a follower of Hans Memling

Madonna Lactans by Ambrogio Bergognone

Galaktotrophousa by Master Ioannis

Madonna Nursing by Anonymous

Nursing Madonna by Signorelli Luca

The Madonna Nursing the Christ Child with Saint Anne by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli

The Virgin Mary Nursing the Christ Child by Hans Memling

The Virgin Nursing the Child with St. John the Baptist in Adoration by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli

Virgen de Belen by Marcellus Coffermans

Nursing Madonna by Bernardino Luini

The Rest On The Flight Into Egypt by Orazio Gentileschi

Madonna with Child by Rogier van der Weyden

Holy Family by Adriaen van der Werff

The Rest On The Flight Into Egypt by Gerard David

Madonna with the Infant Christ and St John the Baptist by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Madonna Nursing the Christ Child by Master of the Legend of the Magdalen

The Holy Family by Francisco de Zurbarán

Very related to the topic, a revered saint of the Church, St. Bernard, even had a vision of Mary breastfeeding him. This is also depicted in numerous works of art over the centuries and also honored in churches. One is below but you can search and find many more examples.

The Lactatio Saint Bernard of Clairvaux by Josefa d'Óbidos


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