This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
When one thinks of making a pilgrimage, it’s easy to think of such far off places as the Holy Land, Rome or Fatima. When you think of going to see great sites of religious history, it’s not surprising if the mind first ventures to the Middle East or to Europe, where great dramas of history have played out for so many centuries and in so many ways. But those of us who live here in the southeastern United States are gifted with our own history, our own memorials, and moments of religious significance.
On Sept. 8, 1565, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Spanish settlers sent by King Philip II landed and celebrated the first Catholic Mass on North American soil, in what is now St. Augustine, Fla. They had first sighted the land on Aug. 28, the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, and in thanksgiving named their new settlement after that great Catholic saint – a testament that stands more than 450 years later.
These Spanish settlers brought with them a deep love and devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and in particular to the image of Our Lady of La Leche, Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto, Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery. They established what is now the oldest Marian shrine in North America, and in 2019 Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre De Dios in St. Augustine was declared a national shrine. On the land known as the “sacred acre,” the memorial sits on the very site where that first Mass was celebrated by Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales in 1565.
If you have never seen an image of Our Lady of La Leche, it’s a truly beautiful depiction of the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin: Mary sits, robed and crowned, with one breast bared to nurse the infant Christ. She is cloaked in stars as she nurses the King of the Universe. She is regal and motherly, an epitome of womanhood.
We live in a time when people seek to redefine family, parenthood – even what it means to be a woman. Babies are kept out of sight or kept as a separate part of life, treated as commodities that one may or may not have the time or the means to afford. They are kept at a distance even from their own parents, because as a culture we have forgotten how to incorporate children into our everyday lives. They have become accessories, and we question whether they are appropriate for the season or if they should be hidden away until a more acceptable time. We treat children as if they were different creatures than ourselves, rather than the remarkable individuals of nascent humanity that they are.
The image of Our Lady nursing the infant Jesus is a beautiful testament to the sanctity of motherhood and how God chose to enter this world as a newborn baby.
There is something powerful about the idea of the Son of God nursing at the breast of the Virgin Mary – the fact that God chose a form so helpless that it required sustenance from a human creature.
In his book “The Everlasting Man,” G.K. Chesterton talks about how mother and child cannot, and should not, be separated. “You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the newborn child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother.”
This is as true of modern mothers and their babies as it is for the mother of God and the Christ Child.
The ability of a woman to bear new life – to sustain a new creature with her own body – should be awe-inspiring. It should not be seen as a nuisance, a burden, something to be “treated” medically. Our fertility is a gift, just as every human life is a gift. It is a gift that God gives to us, and a gift that we can give back to God by dedicating our families to Him and raising up new generations of Christians to give Him glory.
This is not to negate the value of spiritual motherhood. When the Holy Family is taken all together, we are given the example of St. Joseph as a model of the significance of spiritual parenthood. We must accept and embrace the role God gives to us, and we must acknowledge that all paths have value if they are the will of God. By devoting ourselves to raising the next generation, whether they be our own physical children, our godchildren, or simply the children of our community, we are doing the most work possible to ensure a better future for all the world.
This reverence for the Mother of God, specifically in her role as mother, does not take away from our worship of God Himself. In truth, the image of mother and Child highlights the great mystery of the Incarnation. As Chesterton said, it emphasizes that contrast of “the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.” That contrast is important, as we declare in the Creed that Christ was true God and true Man, and there are few depictions that capture it so well as the image of the Son of God nursing at the breast of His mother.
When the Spanish settlers established themselves, it is worth contemplating the fact that they chose this image of the nursing Madonna to accompany them. The infancy of God, the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin, and the beauty of the body and its life-giving force.
If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend making the pilgrimage to St. Augustine and the national shrine. It’s a place rich with history for Catholics and all Americans.