Breast-feeding children at Mass..

 

There is a fairly widespread if not often articulated view in this country that breast-feeding is indecent and therefore not acceptable at Mass. Indeed before we had children, I thought breast-feeding was some strange and faintly indecent practice indulged in by hippy types. It was not until I was pregnant and began to research the topic and then had a baby that I realised just how central breastfeeding is to God’s plan for parents and children.

 

Although a negative view is not generally expressed, nursing mothers are often made sufficiently aware of such views by indirect means, such as a look or a pointed suggestion that they feed elsewhere, that many are put off coming to Mass. A person who smilingly goes up to a nursing mother and suggests she feed “somewhere more private” is not being welcoming. Once mothers stop coming because they are made to feel that they are an embarrassment, they rarely return. This is not just a question of habit. If a mother has felt such hostility at a time in her life when she most badly needed affirmation and emotional support, she is unlikely to experience the Church (and the Catholic community) as a positive influence on the children she loves. I personally know of several cases where new mothers have rediscovered the Faith after the birth of their first baby and started to come along to Mass, only to be made to feel that they and their child are an embarrassment, even, indecent. As a result, they have stopped coming along. This is a very serious situation. Because of the tacit or overt prejudice of some, many families are lost to the Church in this way.

 

If a child begins to root for the breast during Mass (which they often do) a mother (who is often attending without the support of a spouse) has two options: she can feed the child there or exclude  her whole family from Mass. No one can honestly pretend to meet their Christian obligation to welcome children at Mass if they express hostility or embarrassment if the child is breastfed.. A smile is only as welcoming as the willingness it expresses not to put obstacles in the way of the person you are smiling at. In any event, a parishioner who has their attention focussed where it should be; on Our Lord not on other people, is unlikely even to notice that the child is being fed. A committed practising Catholic is by definition expected to help build up the body of Christ and to be inclusive, not to "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear and lay them upon the shoulders of others" (Matt 23 v 4). It is very hard indeed to be made to feel you have to choose between feeding your child and taking them to Mass, whether you are a first time mother still finding your feet or a mother juggling the needs of more than one child, often without the support of a spouse at Mass.

 

As Catholics we celebrate the fact that "The human body shares in the dignity of the "image of God"..man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to .. hold it in honour" ( CCC para 364); this means respectfully using it for the purpose for which it was designed. God could have created us cache animals like birds or lizards who leave their young to forage for food and who feed them through indirect means. In his wisdom he chose to create us as mammals. It is the defining characteristic of mammals that they keep their offspring with them at all times and suckle  them as and when they need it. It seems to me clear that there is a very deep spiritual reason for this. Scripture draws a parallel between the love of God for mankind and the love of parents for their children. A breast-feeding mother and her child are a living metaphor for God’s love and the work of Providence, for the fact that God gives us what we need, when we need it, just as much as we need, providing for our needs not through objects but through a living, physical, affectionate relationship with a person. A child who is breast-fed at Mass, is experiencing Communion in a very special way, in the way that God has fitted small children to experience it.

 

Seeking to make it hard for a Christian of whatever age to receive the Sacraments is a very serious matter. I would challenge anyone tempted to make it hard for a baby to be breast-fed at Mass to explain why and to justify their position with reference to the Catechism. Until and unless this happens, breast-fed babies must, according to the Catechism, be actively welcomed at Mass.