Pope Francis encouraged women attending Mass at the Sistine Chapel on Sunday to breast-feed in public, telling them they could calm their crying babies by nursing them just as the Virgin Mary nursed the baby Jesus.
The comments, which were reported by Vatican Radio, came as the pontiff baptized 28 babies at the Vatican. When the infants began, one after the other, to cry the pope joked to their parents that Jesus’ first sermon was the sound of him wailing in the manger at Bethlehem.
According to a Vatican Radio correspondent, Philippa Hitchen:
As the sounds of crying grew louder, the pope joked that the concert had begun. The babies are crying, he said, because they are in an unfamiliar place, or because they had to get up early, or sometimes simply because they hear another child crying. Jesus did just the same, Pope Francis said, adding that he liked to think of Our Lord’s first sermon as his crying in the stable. And if your children are crying because they are hungry, the pope told the mothers present, then go ahead and feed them, just as Mary breast-fed Jesus.
This is not the first time that the pope has supported a woman’s right to breast-feed in public — or in the Sistine Chapel, an ornate room decorated by Michelangelo where popes are elected in closed-door conclaves.
Two years ago, as he baptized 33 babies at the same ceremony, Pope Francis encouraged mothers to nurse their crying infants, using the Italian word for breast-feed, “allattateli,” according to Reuters.
“You mothers give your children milk and even now, if they cry because they are hungry, breast-feed them, don’t worry,” he said at the time.
In the United States, debates have swirled around the health benefits and practicality of breast-feeding for years. Physicians recommend that mothers nurse their children if possible, but critics counter that a lack of federally mandated paid maternity leave makes that an impossible goal for many middle- and working-class women.
In an op-ed article in The New York Times, Courtney Jung, a political-science professor at the University of Toronto who wrote a book called “Lactivism,” criticized what she called “the moral fervor” around breast-feeding.
“Breast-feeding has become an important marker of who we are and what we believe in,” she wrote. “For some it signals a commitment to attachment parenting, for others it is an environmental issue, and for still others it is a protest against the predatory marketing practices of the big formula companies.”