So I admit I don’t always follow Catholic news with rapt attention–I’ll read something here or there, but I don’t read it all, because I really can’t read it all.
And yet when I saw this article all about how the pope encouraged women to breastfeed their babies in the Sistine Chapel, I got all excited because hello, I nursed one of my babies in the Sistine Chapel!
I will now also tell you that I have nursed a child at the pig races too, lest you think I’m a really sophisticated and tres chic breastfeeder. But we’re not talking about the county fair today, so we’ll leave that for another time.
Three-ish years ago my husband and I took a quick, we’re-basically-on-The-Amazing-Race detour to Rome on our way home from attending court in Ethiopia. We figured it would probably be our only chance, at least for the foreseeable future, to visit such a place, and so we decided to be all adventurous. It would be a quick stop–just two full days–and we would have our 18-month-old pixie of a daughter, Mary, with us.
The city was, of course, incredible. Because it’s Rome, ya’ll! We toured the Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, dined on pasta and gelato and cappuccinos, visited three of the four major basilicas (St. Paul Outside the Walls was unfortunately too far outside the walls for us to make it over there during our brief and frenzied stay), and took a train across town to the Vatican. We weren’t Catholic at the time but had recently come to the scary decision that we were going to convert, and so the trip held special significance because, well, it’s Rome: the birthplace of Christianity. It felt kind of like a final investigation into whether all of this stuff was for real or not.
So we went, and hiked around the city for two days straight with our baby strapped onto our bodies–which drew stares and gasps and quite a bit of attention from the locals and tourists alike. And no, I’m still not entirely sure why but yes, suffice it to say that Italians aren’t reading Dr. Sears. Baby did great, by the way, and my PSA for the day is that you should not automatically rule out globe trotting on account of having a little one–it is possible to have an amazing, eye-opening, educational, and fun vacation with a baby in tow. Promise.
Of course I also promise that there will be harrowing and humiliating moments too. There just will be. Consider it the character-building aspect of the trip, thrown in free-of-charge.
Now the reason Mary Lu made the voyage to Africa and then Europe in the first place, as opposed to staying home with her four older siblings and Grandma, was because she was still nursing. A lot. I pretty much breastfeed my babies until they decide they’ve had enough, and some have come to that conclusion at the ripe old age of 9 months, and others at two years. And it’s all good because, you know, every child is different–and I can think of few things sweeter than a precious little one falling asleep with a tummy full of milk. In my arms. Also? Breastfeeding is crazy convenient because you don’t have to fill and wash bottles, and I’m all about being practical, as evidenced by my hauling a young child to Italy…obviously.
Our second day in Rome was pretty much exclusively spent in Vatican City, at St. Peter’s Square. There was so very much to see, and of course at the top of the list was the Sistine Chapel. Because Michelangelo was one cool dude, and in spite of my knowing literally NOTHING about art history or art appreciation or, let’s face it, art anything, I know enough to know that his representations of the faith and of the Bible are downright near miraculous. And it turns out that other people feel the same way because the Sistine Chapel, on the week directly following Easter, was a Very Crowded Place. It took for.e.ver. to wind through all the rooms and such. Think insanely long lines, and we were packed in like sardines with no real personal space to be found. And I like me some personal space.
Remember when I said earlier that there will be harrowing moments? Well, right there in line amidst Raphael’s tapestries, Mary decided she’d had quite enough of the whole “Let’s take a little trip across the world and go continent hopping and then spend all this time standing shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of noisy, impatient tourists breathing down your neck”.
No offense, Raphael, but she was DONE.
And I mean done. Sweet Mary Lu was hot, tired, overstimulated, and just plain couldn’t take it anymore. (This photo was taken not too long before everything went down, when I was still smiling and still capable of placating her with food.) In spite of my very best attempts at distracting and pacifying and shoving crackers in her mouth, she proceeded to melt-down. In the middle of the crowd.
People were annoyed, I was sweating profusely and close to tears myself, and it didn’t help when a group of women standing next to me started loudly declaring that they would never be caught dead bringing a baby on vacation.
I exercised great restraint in not handing them my phone number right then and there, and telling them to call me up in ten or fifteen years when they actually have a baby (or five), and want to take a trip somewhere.
But I didn’t. Instead, I silently lived out that classic Seinfeld scene where Elaine is on the subway en route to a wedding, and the subway stalls and the lights go out, and she starts mentally panicking and screaming and oh my goodness yes, that was me. In Rome. Only instead of holding a wedding gift, I was juggling a furiously screaming baby in my arms, and disgusted tourists were pressing in all around me.
And now as we were finally being ushered into the Sistine Chapel with all of the people who rued the day they wound up at the Vatican with the people with the baby, my heart sank. Because I had so desperately wanted to see the miraculous works of art and the place where the papal enclaves are held.
But my daughter was upset and frustrated.
And the room was standing-up-only.
And it was supposed to be quiet–the guards were actively and audibly shushing people for talking. Which of course makes good sense in such a lovely, sacred space, but what was I going to do? My version of the subway-wedding-nightmare was only getting worse.
So in a last-ditch attempt to soothe my poor child and avoid Vatican employee ire, I darted towards what I hoped would be a nondescript corner and pulled out my trusty nursing cover. “Pleeeeeeeease, God, don’t let the guards see me!,” I prayed, since I was breaking the whole “no sitting allowed” rule, not to mention breastfeeding an 18-month-old in, you know, the Sistine Chapel, which I reckoned was also off-limits. People can be touchy about that sort of thing.
And wouldn’t you know it, not long after I began nursing, two guards made a beeline for me. Like a really direct, obvious, can’t-get-there-fast-enough beeline. Obviously they had some sort of superhuman ability to detect sneaky rule-breaking, noisy babies and distressed, humiliated, perspiring mothers. Here it is. I’m about to get kicked out of the Sistine Chapel for breastfeeding a screaming baby. International incident, anyone?
Then the guards bent down with wild gestures and earnest words that I couldn’t quite make out, and so I stood up and fixed my shirt and clutched my baby and averted eye contact, all while imagining Pope Benedict XVI’s stern head shaking and tsk tsking when he was briefed that evening about this most horrible breach of Official Catholic Etiquette by Non Catholic People, in the Sistine Chapel of all places.
But no, the guards were actually gesturing me and my husband in the opposite direction of the exit. Ohmygoodness, are they hauling us into some sort of Vatican office? Are we going to be fined? Yelled at? But no, they were unroping a cordoned-off area, up at the front. Where tourists aren’t allowed to go. And then they began pointing and, well, pretty much forcing us to sit on the bench.
They weren’t asking me to leave.
They weren’t shushing my baby.
They weren’t appalled that the American lady was doing something so banal as breastfeeding a child, amidst the world’s most magnificent masterpieces.
No, they weren’t doing any of those things.
They simply weren’t going to permit a mother to breastfeed her baby on the floor.
So there my weary and disheveled little family sat, in a part of the chapel not typically accessible to the public. Up by the altar. We got to enjoy the art and the beauty from what was arguably the best seat in the house, at our own leisure, and with the knowledge that we were welcome there. We experienced a reprieve from what had been an exhausting several days (that had incidentally included meeting the girls who would become our two new daughters, and all of the respective birth mothers of our adopted children–emotional overload much?).
See it appeared that in spite of all the people incredulous that an uncivilized 18-month-old dared be present on their tour of St. Peter’s, well, the Vatican and presumably Pope Benedict XVI thought otherwise. And I will never, ever forget that. Incidentally Mary had transformed into a calm and happy child sitting there on the special bench, and rarely have I felt such peace as I did in those moments, gazing at the ceiling and the colors and the gold with my husband and little girl.
And it’s funny because my fear and hand-wringing and the entire global village of tourists hates us and our baby! were, in the end, 100% unfounded and inconsequential. Well except for the part about all the people hating us, because they really kind of did. But that didn’t much matter in the end, and do you know why?
Because The Powers That Be around there, aka those belonging to and representing Jesus’ Church, have this upside-down idea that human beings are created with dignity, that motherhood is a high calling and important vocation, and that Jesus welcomes–especially welcomes–“the least of these”, be it a fussy baby, exhausted mother or all of the above. And don’t so many of us have that impression anyway, this idea that Very Religious People are too busy/too pious/too important/too out of touch to understand who we are or what we’re about? That we have to be or look a certain way to be found acceptable to the Super Christian Christians? Or to Jesus Himself? All of those things are stereotypes, plain and simple, and while I’m sure there are many folks with good reason to feel that way due to negative past experiences with Catholicism or Christianity or people of faith, it’s short-sighted to assume that everyone claiming to love Jesus has impossible expectations.
I caught a glimpse of what the Church is about that day, and that is a gift. I suspect that for many, the Vatican is merely a touristy stop on a long touristy list. The relics, treasures, confessionals, and papal tombs found within the basilica are little more than museum artifacts, more or less useless (or embarrassing) evidence of a religion long since faded. The very idea of the Vatican and all it represents is medieval nonsense, a hierarchy now rendered culturally irrelevant.
But it’s not true. Because faith and the Church and, ultimately, Jesus and the Sacraments continue to live on through every age and time and place. Shouting love, and grace, and truth. Spreading peace, and joy, and hope.
THAT is what we found in Rome. More than the spectacular hotel-roof views or once-in-a-lifetime look at the ancient past, we found a faith anchored in Christ and a love that works from the inside out and upside down. We found Jesus’ Church in all its majestic, brilliant and downright earthy glory. A living-and-breathing institution which touches our world and the mess of humanity with a gentle yet confrontational stroke of mercy, that brings sight to the blind and food to the hungry. And it is here, really truly here, for any and all to see. To touch. To taste.
I never imagined when my husband was booking overpriced hotel reservations that we would find the picture of such radical compassion and love in such a high-minded and extravagant place. Except, come to think of it, that’s what we find in Jesus Himself, and it’s that tension of Heaven-come-to-meet-earth that gives us so much trouble, that holds us back and makes things like the Real Presence and the Absolution of Sin in the confessional, and even the Sacrament of Baptism, seem impossible and foolish.
But they are not, and everything we found there in the physical city of Rome we found all the more in the proverbial Rome, the Roman Catholic Church. And that is what I think about now when I hear of the Sistine Chapel, or St. Peter’s Square, or see things about the Vatican in the news. Don’t believe the Dan Brown or mainstream media or Jack Chick version of the story. Get a passport and go for yourself. If you can’t go, read the stories of the saints and the martyrs and the book of Acts or, heck, just take my word for it. Jesus is love, He is rest for the weary, and if you’re a mother? Jesus, and Mary His mother, are near to you. Your vocation is beautiful, difficult, and ultimately filled with meaning and purpose. You have dignity, self-worth, and you matter.
If I could, I would tell Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI thank you. Thank you for carrying on this tradition of loving and welcoming mothers and fathers and children and the needy, and of helping us women to embrace our vocation with humility and strength.
And if I could, I would tell the world that in spite of the recent headlines and accolades from unexpected places as of late implying the contrary, my Church, my faith and my God are not reversing course or Changing All The Things–love and compassion are nothing new. Jesus, the Church, and many a pope have been about the business of love and holiness for centuries and centuries. Sometimes it’s quiet, and goes unnoticed by reporters and celebrities and Facebook, but it is there, and always has been. Speaking to the vulnerable, the lost and the small. And that is what compels so many of us to dig deeper into the historic Christian faith in the first place, this unbroken chain of Sacraments and teaching and bringing Christ to those who need Him most.
But more than any of that, all told and at the end of the day? I have a pretty amazing story to tell my daughter as she grows: that once upon a time, she alone was specially invited by the Vatican to have her milk in an exclusive area of the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by Michelangelo’s depictions of the story of the world from beginning to end, reflecting the love of a God who loves her (and you and me) so very much.