Pope Francis attracted a great deal of attention Sunday when he made the common-sense observation that it was perfectly fine for women to breastfeed their babies in public, even in public ceremonies, even at the Vatican.
I applaud the pope’s statements for two reasons: The first is that breastfeeding is simply better for babies, and anything that can be done to support this completely natural and millennia-old practice should be supported. We are an incarnational Church, and at the moment of that incarnation, we know Mary did not present Jesus with a plastic bottle filled with formula.
However, my second reason is more personal. You see, my oldest son was breastfed in the papal apartments 25 years ago, and I view this as a kind of retroactive dispensation.
It all began on a humid early morning in Rome. My wife and I were invited to the daily Mass in the papal chapel with Pope John Paul II prior to my leaving Rome to work for Our Sunday Visitor. We were extremely excited about this opportunity. The instructions were strict. We had to be at the bronze doors (at the right side of St. Peter’s Square) by 6:30 a.m. That meant waking up Anthony — our first born, making our way to the subway, walking from the subway stop to the Vatican, and then waiting until our group — 50 or so people were attending that Mass — was ushered into the chapel.
Pope John Paul was kneeling on a prie-dieu in silence when we all quietly entered. The chapel was pale marble and decorated with beautiful modern Catholic art. The atmosphere as Mass began was reverential but with a patina of excitement: After all, we were all right here in the papal palace attending Mass with Pope John Paul II!
I’m not sure when it dawned on us that we had forgotten one teensy weensy thing in our morning rush: feeding the baby. My guess is that it dawned on us when he began crying. A crying baby in your ordinary white suburban parish is embarrassment enough, but here we were disrupting the pope’s Mass.
Pope Francis had some obvious words of advice for us, if 25 years too late: “Some [babies] will cry because they are uncomfortable or because they are hungry. If they are hungry, mothers, let them eat, no worries, because here they are the main focus.”
As for us, we beat a hasty retreat out of the chapel, and in a sitting room across from the chapel where we could still hear the Mass, Corine breastfed Anthony. We went back into Mass — actually, Corine went back in, and I held Anthony in the hallway just outside of the chapel. One of my memories of that moment is of the papal secretaries — including then Msgr. Stanisław Dziwisz — diverting Anthony with a smile and a kind word.
When we met Pope John Paul later in the library, he acknowledged with a smile that he had heard Anthony’s cries. He handed Anthony a rosary in a brown plastic case and blessed him. Anthony promptly stuck the rosary packet in his mouth.
I hope there is a dispensation for that as well.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.