What is the spiritual meaning of a 'pelican'?

Q. At Mass we recently sang a hymn that referred to a “pelican.” What is the spiritual meaning here?

A. This reference appears in the classic devotional hymn “Godhead Here in Hiding” (Adoro Te Devote). It’s one of five Eucharistic hymns that were composed by St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Thomas was responding to a request of Pope Urban IV (1261–1264) when the latter established the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) in the year 1264.

Though the pelican is not a biblical image, before the time of Christ an ancient legend claimed that in time of famine, the mother pelican would pierce her breast with her own beak to feed her young with her blood. Another version of the tale insisted that the selfless mother fed her dying offspring with her blood to revive them from death, but in doing so she lost her own life.

Not surprisingly, then, the early Christians adopted the pelican as a symbol of Christ, who gave His lifeblood for our redemption. Even more, He continues to feed us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

The words you recall (translated by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844–1889) are these: “Like what tender tales tell of the Pelican / Bathe me, Jesus Lord, in what Thy Bosom ran / Blood that but one drop of has the power to win / All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.”

The pelican as a symbol of Christ and of the Eucharist can be found, not just in hymns, but in other Christian settings as well. Shakespeare and other celebrated poets have used the imagery, and churches display it in wood, stone, and stained glass. Some tabernacles are even shaped as pelicans!