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|Devotion to The Virgin of the Milk in the Philippines|
Nuestra Señora de la Leche Y Buen Parto
by Marc Dalma
One of the less known image of the Blessed Mother, but is now gathering a growing number of devotees in the Philippines, is Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Bien Parto, translated as Our Lady of Milk and Good Delivery. Our Lady of Milk depicts the Blessed Mother breastfeeding the baby Jesus, making her virtually the patron of breastfeeding advocates in the Philippines.
The image of the Mary nursing the Child Jesus dates back in the 16th century in the city of Madrid, Spain, where she is called Nuestra Señora de la Leche Y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery). In 1598, the image was rescued from irreverent hands and enthroned in the home of a married couple. The woman and her unborn child were bound to die and her husband prayed intently to Our Lady of the Milk to grant his wife a safe delivery.
Our Lady heard his prayer and thereupon, his dying pregnant wife and child were saved. Together, the couple spread the news to other families about our Lady’s power with God. Soon after the devotion became famous throughout Spain. Becoming aware of our Lady’s intercession, King Philip III, who was the ruler during that time, personally undertook the erection of a shrine in honor of our Lady of the Milk.
More than twenty years later, the early Spanish settlers brought a replica to the United States and enshrined it at the Mission of Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine, Florida. It was the first shrine ever to be dedicated to the Blessed Mother in the United States and was established on the very spot where the first parish Mass was offered 55 years earlier. The original chapel, built around 1615, was destroyed by gunfire during the colonial days and later, by a hurricane. The present chapel now houses a replica of the original statue that was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War of March 13, 1936.
The Divine Motherhood
The dogma defined by the Council of Ephesus (431) is that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Mother of God. Nestorius, whose heresy implied the denial of this doctrine, was deposed and the Council solemnly proclaimed that Mary should be given the title “Theotokos” (God-bearer). Through the power of the Holy Spirit She conceived and gave birth to God when He assumed human nature in Her womb.
This title had been explicitly accorded Mary by practically all the great Fathers who had preceded Nestorius, like Origen, Athanasius, and Basil. Our Lady’s motherhood of God is the foundation of all Her other privileges - Immaculate Conception, Assumption, etc. The feast of the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on October 11 and January 1. Since the holiness of Mary is superior to that of any other creature, we pay Her a special veneration known as “hyperdulia.”
The Rest in the Flight to Egypt
The image of the Virgen de la Leche has also been depicted and is also believed to have originated in the story of the rest of the Holy Family on their way to Egypt. Numerous paintings have been produced by famous painters such as Patenier, Gentileschi, Ambrosius Benson, Bertram, Brueghel, Gerard David, Ferdinand Bol, Isenbrandt and Antonio Peris. These art works show the Blessed Mother nursing the Child Jesus, while her spouse, St. Joseph, is distantly resting from an exhausting trip. In Jerusalem, there is a cave called the Milk Grotto which is the traditional place believed to be the exact spot where the Holy Family rested and where Our Lady’s life-giving milk was poured forth.
Philippines’ Devotion to Our Lady of Milk
In Manila, the Our Lady of La Leche Movement headed by Remedios "Baby" Ticzon Gonzales started the propagation of the devotion to Our Lady of the Milk. It was supported by Rev. Fr. Nick Blanquisco of the Parish of Our Lady of Fatima, Mandaluyong, and was eventually granted Ecclesiastical approval in May 8, 2000 through then Vicar General of Manila, Msgr. Socrates Villegas and Manila Archbishop, + Jaime Cardinal L. Sin. To encourage a renewal of faith in the Blessed Mother and to make our Lady of the Milk better known to many, the members of the Movement embarked on an outreach program in the form of carrying a pilgrim image to hospitals, maternity clinics and homes for unwed mothers.
Eventually, individuals with special petitions requested to have the image brought to their homes. Pregnant women praying for a safe delivery, childless women desiring to become pregnant as well as mothers having problems or difficulty with their children found comfort having the image of Our Lady of the Milk in their homes and enabled them to say the novena prayers in closer communion with the Blessed Mother. Since the start of the propagation, testimonies and other accounts of answered prayers have been received from those who had made the novena devotion. A tall replica of Our Lady of the Milk that used to be at the Rosary Theater, Edsa Shangri-La Mall, Mandaluyong City, can now be visited at the Center for Peace in Lopez Rizal St., also in Mandaluyong. Similar images are enshrined at the parish of Our Lady of Fatima as well as in the chapel of Harrison Plaza Mall, Manila.
In Las Piñas, a “de vestir” image of La Virgen de la Leche y Buen Parto was commissioned in March 2007 and blessed during a Grand Marian Exhibit at the Parish of Our Lady of Fatima, Philamlife Village in October 2007 by the Most Rev. Jesse E. Mercado, Bishop of the Diocese of Imus. Since then, it has graced and was blessed at various exhibits at Valenzuela city, Tondo, Manila, Harrison Plaza in Manila, SM Mall of Asia in Pasay city, Amadeo, Cavite, Kawit, Cavite and Cavite city.
On one instance, this particular image of the Virgen de la Leche was included in an article at the Philippine Daily Inquirer and it was noted, that during an exhibit at the Harrison Plaza this particular image though the most striking, gave a startling impression on the faithful. Unlike their pious reactions on other usual Marian images, people would look very quickly and move on. Some seemed almost embarrassed and violated upon seeing the breast of the Virgin Mary exposed. This is not new. At most exhibits or expositions, there were mixed reactions, most of which were violent reactions appealing for the breast to be covered and hidden from view. However, a couple of priests and religious sisters would exclaim how happy they were to see such devotion flourishing in the country. One priest even exclaimed, “Ano ba ang mali? Ang imahen ng Mahal na Birhen na nagpapasuso, o ang isip nating mga tao na nakakakita nito?” (What is wrong/malicious here?... the image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding or the minds of the people who see it?)
As the owner of this image, I felt relieved, consoled and comforted. As I did further research on this devotion, I came to know, that this particular title of the Blessed Mother, indeed should be made known, for it gives us an important message of charity and self-sacrifice. False modesty seemed to have prevented this image and the devotion to it, from becoming popular. Note how even the word “leche” has, sadly, become an expletive. I believe that it is high time, that Catholics open their minds on this naked truth.
Arguments on the Breastfeeding Virgin
Numerous depictions of the breastfeeding Virgin have emerged most especially during the 16th and 17th century, some of which was opposed by malicious critics among of which were Protestants who demanded for change and focused on the excessive lavishness of sacred images. But these were not given much attention by the Church, for she has focused on the importance of humanity of Mary and not much on the mystery of Incarnation of God. In defense of this stand of the Church, Lucetta Scaraffia of the Vatican publication L’Osservatore Romano stressed that clothing and covering the image of the breastfeeding Virgin diminishes the aspect of the humanity of Mary that stirs hearts and the faith of all believers.
This was agreed upon by Fr. Enrico dal Covolo, professor of classic and Christian literature at the Pontifical Salesian University. He stated that: “The Virgin Mary who nurses Her Son Jesus is one of the most eloquent signs that the Word of God truly and undoubtedly became flesh, and it was only by becoming fully human that the Son of God could save humanity from sin and death.” Moreover, depictions on the breastfeeding Virgin helps meditate on the beauty and honor of the womanhood and motherhood of Mary which has been made holy by God. The sacred image of Mary nursing her Child is "an image so concrete and loving" that it recalls her offering of her body for nourishment and giving herself completely to her Son as He offers His body and blood in the Eucharist and gave Himself completely for others with His death and resurrection.
Moreover, according to Dr. Golda Balass, lecturer in the Department of Art History, Tel Aviv University, images of the “Virgo Lactans” or the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Christ Child, highlights the Virgin’s role as Mother of the Messiah, and in a wider sense — as intercessor for humanity (Maria Mediatrix). In Catholicism, Mary is regarded as the primary intercessor with Christ, an advocate for the Christian souls and a co-redemptrix, first and foremost by virtue of her being Mother of the Messiah. To reinforce Her rightful place as advocate for mankind, She is often depicted in art exposing Her breast and pointing at it, as if saying "it is from Me that the Son of God suckled." The Virgin Mary was the Mother who nursed not only Her son, but also, through Him, all of humanity (Mater Omnium, Nutrix Omnium). Thus, the breast and breast-feeding acquired moral qualities, becoming an expression of charity.
Saint Bernard Clairvaux
The devotion to the Virgen de la Leche also originates in one famous traditional story. In 1146 at the Cathedral of Speyer in Germany, while praying and meditating in front of an image of the Virgen de la Leche, St. Bernard exclaimed the words: “MONSTRA TE ESSE MATREM.” (Show Thyself a Mother.) In an instant, the image came to life, and gave St. Bernard her precious milk. This gesture symbolizes that she is His "Mother" and that she is prepared to mediate for him with her Son. It likewise shows us how St. Bernard had a deep devotion which led him to the gift of wisdom and knowledge that he has received from his heavenly Mother and made him one of the Doctors of the Church who defended and uplifted the doctrines of the Catholic faith.
The Virgen de la Leche and other Holy People
In legend, suckling the Virgin of living saints brought healing and blessings. St. Lidwina of Schiedam saw Mary and her attendant virgins fill the sky with floods of their milk. In Mugnano del Cardinale, Italy, is enshrined the image of the Virgin of Grace whose breast is exposed. In this church was discovered and venerated the relics of St. Philomena. Likewise, a similar image also called the Virgin of Grace is painted on the front wall and ceiling behind the altar of the church at San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, where St. Padre Pio of Pietralcina lived. In this image, the Baby Jesus is trying to give us, also children of His Mother in the order of grace, His Mother’s milk, which represents grace.
In Naju, South Korea, Julia saw a vision in which the Blessed Mother was giving abundant quantities of her milk to her spiritual children to nurture their souls and heal their bodies. The water from the Miraculous Spring in Naju is believed to represent the Blessed Mother’s milk. This reference to the Blessed Mother’s milk as the grace for us is in conformity with the traditional teachings by the Church Doctors and other Saints that the Blessed Mother is the Mediatrix of all Graces. As Christ, the author of all graces, became incarnate through the Blessed Mother, She is the channel of all the graces that we receive from God.
The Virgen de la Leche is Patroness of all mothers, most especially pregnant ladies, those who have recently given birth, and also those aspiring to be mothers. Her feast day is celebrated every October 11.
1. Vatican pushes for more breastfeeding images of the Virgin Mary. July 02, 2008. http://breastfeeding.blog.motherwear.com/2008/07/vatican-pushes.html
About the Author:
Marc Dalma is the owner of a 4-ft image of the Virgen de la Leche and is now enshrined at their home at Philamlife Village, Las Piñas city. He is currently working as an Administrative Officer at the Department of Finance, Manila, and is active in Church through the Cofradia de la Virgen de la Soledad de Porta Vaga, in Cavite city.