The Virgin Mary nursed Jesus. So why shouldn't women feel comfortable breastfeeding their children in the church?
Pope Francis conveyed this message in a ceremony in the Sistine Chapel on Sunday, reiterating his support for breastfeeding in public - and inviting women to nurse their infants in the sacred space adorned by Michelangelo's masterpiece.
One by one, the pope baptized 28 children - 15 boys and 13 girls - pronouncing each of their names in the annual ceremony marking the day in the liturgical calendar when Jesus was baptized. As several babies began crying in near-unison, Pope Francis joked that "the concert has begun," the Associated Press reported, adding that perhaps Jesus's first "homily" was his crying as an infant.
He then encouraged the mothers in the chapel to feel free to nurse their infants.
"The ceremony is a little long, someone's crying because he's hungry. That's the way it is," the pontiff said, according to the AFP.
At least one woman nursed her infant during the ceremony as the pope formally welcomed the 28 children into the Catholic church.
It was not the first time the pope has spoken out in favor of public breastfeeding. During the same baptismal ceremony two years ago - in which he baptized 33 infants in the Sistine Chapel - he urged mothers to feel free to breastfeed their children if they cried or were hungry. The written text of his homily during that ceremony included the phrase "give them milk," but he changed it to use the Italian term "allattateli," which means "breastfeed them."
"You mothers give your children milk and even now, if they cry because they are hungry, breastfeed them, don't worry," he said.
In 2013, the pope garnered attention for a comment he made to an Italian journalist about a young mother who had come to a recent general audience.
"She was shy and didn't want to breastfeed in public, while the pope was passing," Francis said in the interview. "I wish to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone."
That comment came as welcome news to feminists and breastfeeding advocates at the time, some of whom noted that many Americans still frown upon nursing infants in the pews during church services, according to a Religious News Service article. A few months earlier, a popular parenting blogger named Mary Fischer had written an article titled "5 Places Moms Need to Breastfeed Discreetly," listing "church" as No. 5.
"It's wonderful when moms want to bring the kids to church and nurture their faith early on," she wrote. "But a cover-up is a necessity with a baby in tow. Do I really have to elaborate here?" She did elaborate to the reporter, saying, "The last thing I want to do is be listening to a sermon and look over and see boobs. If you need to do it, fine. Just make sure you have a cover-up."
The post inspired hundreds of comments, including: "You must have some psychological damage to be so freaked out about other women feeding their babies the way nature/God intended."
Throughout his papacy, Francis has directed some of his comments towards the issue of women's rights and has taken some symbolic - yet gradual - steps toward expanding women's roles in church life.
In March of last year, the pope for the first time included women in the Holy Thursday washing of feet, a ritual that takes place on the Thursday before Easter and traditionally involved only the washing of men's feet.
Pope Francis has previously disappointed many within the church with his opposition to female priests. But in comments to an international conference of nuns in Vatican City in May of last year, he said he supports the creation of a commission to examine whether women should be "reinstated" as deacons, signaling a historic shift. He has also drawn attention to the gender wage gap, and in his major teaching about the Catholic family published in April, he stressed the importance of women's rights.
"Even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women's rights and their participation in public life, in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights," Francis wrote. "Unacceptable customs still need to be eliminated."