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Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican December 18, 2013.TONY GENTILE/Reuters

Images of baby Jesus at Mary's breast are ubiquitous in Catholic churches. But even so, public breastfeeding is frowned upon in countries such as Italy, according to anecdotal reports here and here.

But Pope Francis – Time's Person of the Year – appears to be breaking with that tradition. In a recent interview with La Stampa, an Italian daily newspaper, Pope Francis gave nursing in public a thumbs-up, Today reports.

Pope Francis recalled an encounter with a young mother and crying baby who seemed hungry. The Pope encouraged the mother to feed her baby, but "she was shy and didn't want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing," he is quoted as saying. "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."

Clearly, the Pope was urging the world to feed those in need. But the subtext appears to be, if a baby is hungry, go ahead and breastfeed on the spot.

His oblique reference to public breastfeeding isn't the first time Pope Francis has been unfazed by the idea. As The New York Times reported, Pope Francis has been photographed kissing the toe of a baby, right next to a nursing mother with a partly exposed breast.

Pope Francis's Argentinian upbringing may have something to do with his accepting attitude. In Argentina, public breastfeeding is so common that no one bats an eye when a mother rearranges her clothes to nurse.

The Pope's endorsement of public breastfeeding doesn't exactly make him a lactivist. On the contrary, his stance may be deeply orthodox. In the Middle Ages, as David Gibson, reporter for the Religon News Service, pointed out, "the virgin's nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of God's love for humanity."

In this case, viva tradizione!