The Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, together with the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the Shrine of the Visitation in Ain Karem, is one of the most popular shrines to the Virgin Mary in the whole of the Holy Land. There is not a single pilgrim who, after visiting and praying in the grotto of the Nativity, fails to take the path that leaves from the main square in Bethlehem and continues along the southern side of the Basilica to linger here, looked after by the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land and very well-known since the 4th century.
The importance of the Grotto, in Christian devotion, is linked to the story in the Gospel according to Matthew (Matthew 2,13), when an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph, urging him to flee to Egypt in order to escape the wrath of King Herod. According to a very ancient tradition, this is one of the places where Mary stopped to look after her child, to rest and to feed him: some drops of milk – which fell to the ground while Our Lady was feeding Jesus – changed the colour of the rock from pink to white.
Curative properties were associated with the rock, in particular for women who found it difficult to breastfeed and those who were unable to conceive. From the 6th century, relics from this grotto were known in Europe and in the East, in the form of small pieces of pulverized and compressed rock. This devotion continues today to be the sign of a living memory of a symbolic moment of the Virgin Mary’s maternity.
“Pilgrims and faithful come here from all over the world, especially from Poland and Romania, two countries which have a special bond with the Virgin Mary,” fr. Luis Enrique Segovia, Guardian of the Franciscan convent of St Catherine in Bethlehem, said. “The Milk Grotto recalls the tender and intimate gesture of Mary breastfeeding the child Jesus. The prayer of the Shrine, addressed to Mary to ask for the intercession of “Her heart as a Mother” contains the sense of abandonment to God and trust in His will: this is an attitude that gives comfort to many women who come here to ask for the grace of being able to have a child.” The prayer is available in many languages, evidence of the popularity of the Shrine.
“Many Muslim women also stop here in prayer,” fr. Luis Enrique continued, “They do not only come to ask for the gift of motherhood, but they come here to honour this woman who, as they often say, “amazes us by her humility, her silence, her Fiat, wholly accepting the will of God.” They have a real and deep devotion for the figure of Mary.”
The friars who alternate in the service at the Grotto include Fr. Tadeu Luiz Fernandes from Brazil who welcomes the pilgrims at the entrance to the Shrine: a room has been set up here with one wall full of photos and letters sent by happy parents of all nationalities who have seen their wish fulfilled: they are living testimonies of the grace they have received and the devotion they have put into practice. On the door, there is the photo of fr. Lawrence Bode, a friar of the Custody who, for over 30 years, only looked after the Grotto, curating the archive made up of the testimonies which are now in their thousands.
Today the Milk Grotto is alongside the convent entrusted to the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament. An internal corridor links the Grotto with the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and with the upper church: the Adoration of the Eucharist continues all day and it is possible for all pilgrims to spend time there in silent prayer and to write prayer intentions.