Q. I read that Pope Francis told mothers of young infants that they should not be ashamed of breastfeeding their children in public. I applaud his compassionate and empathetic words. However, does this mean a mother does not need to worry about remaining modest while breastfeeding at Mass or in public places?
A. On January 8, 2017, the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord, Pope Francis baptized 28 babies in the Sistine Chapel. In his homily during the Rite of Baptism, he noted the symphony of cries by the little ones who would soon receive the grace of God. He told the mothers of the infants: “So to you mothers: breastfeed! Without fear, all as normal. As the Madonna nursing Jesus. Do not forget you have asked for faith. To you, [is] the task of guarding the faith, making it grow, in order that it may become a witness for all of us.”
In the baptism of infants, the parents and godparents of the children make the choice for them to receive the most precious of all gifts: God’s sanctifying grace. Infants are completely dependent upon their parents for food, clothing, shelter, love and every good thing it needs to grow in the early years. By bringing their children to be baptized, parents allow them to receive this priceless gift of God’s grace.
In the Rite of Baptism, the parents take on the responsibility of raising their children in the practice of the faith. This is certainly a serious responsibility, but should be viewed as more of a blessing, for God allows human beings to be instruments of his grace in the lives of their children.
The parents promise to help the faith grow in their children throughout their lives. The Holy Father connects this promise with the reality of mothers feeding their children. Mothers, through breastfeeding, feed, nourish and allow their children to grow physically—just as the Blessed Virgin Mary did for Jesus. And parents spiritually feed and nourish their children as they teach them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ through their words and example.
While the Holy Father appeared to want to normalize the practice of breastfeeding in public through these comments, that of course does not mean that the virtue of modesty must be disregarded. A mother should feel comfortable breastfeeding her child at Mass or in public, but it can and should be done modestly.
Sadly, modesty has become a forgotten virtue in our contemporary culture. It’s rarely spoken of outside religious circles, perhaps because it’s viewed as a threat to one’s individuality or freedom of expression. A modest person might easily be labeled a prude today.
Our Lord tells us in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5:8) As Christians, we desire to see God for all eternity, and we wish to help others arrive at the same end. The salvation of souls supersedes the fashions and cultural norms of our times, and even our beloved individuality.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the virtue of modesty “protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness” (CCC 2521). Remaining modest in our dress, our speech and our comportment assists ourselves in keeping our own hearts pure, but also allows others to remain pure of heart.
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