Our Lady of Sorrows

Every year on Sept. 15 — unless, like this year, Sunday takes precedence — the Church commemorates the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.

St. Paul told the Corinthians that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), and St. Clement I, the fourth pope, urged the Christians of the late first century to “look steadfastly to the blood of Christ” that was shed on the cross. It was only a matter of time before Christians, in contemplating Christ’s crucifixion, would also turn their attention to those standing near the cross, especially his sorrowful mother.

Mary's suffering

Dr. Robert Fastiggi, professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and vice president of the Mariological Society of America, helped trace for Our Sunday Visitor the development of devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows through the Middle Ages. Eastern Fathers from the third century reflected on the sword that Simeon prophesied would pierce Mary’s soul (Lk 2:35). Jacob of Serugh (451-521), a Syrian poet and theologian, prayed to Christ:

“Your Mother endured great suffering for you and was beset by every kind of distress because of your Crucifixion. So much grief, so many tears shed by those eyes when they buried you, placing you in the tomb. So much horror endured by the Mother of Mercy at your burial, when the guardians of the tomb took hold of you. What suffering she endured when she saw you hanging from the cross, and they pierced your side with the lance of Golgotha.”

In subsequent centuries, Eastern writers continued to contemplate Mary’s suffering. At the end of the first millennium, the Greek writer Symeon the Metaphrast expressed Mary’s sorrow as she held her son’s body:

“Your hands and your feet are pierced, but I feel the nails bringing torture to my innermost soul. Your side has been pierced, but my heart too has been pierced at the same time. I too am crucified by your sufferings, have died in your Passion, and am buried with you.”

Mother of us all

“Although these Eastern Christian writers manifested devotion to Mary’s sorrows, it seems that this devotion really grew in prominence in the Latin West during the Middle Ages,” Fastiggi observed. In the early 12th century, Rupert of Deutz, a German Benedictine, linked Mary’s suffering to labor pains:

Because they were truly “pains of a woman in labor” (Ps 48:7) … in the Passion of the only begotten Son the Blessed Virgin brought forth the salvation of us all, she is obviously the mother of us all.

Prayerful reflection on Sacred Scripture led to the numbering of Mary’s sorrows, or dolors, at seven (see sidebar).

In the 13th century, two events occurred that spurred on devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows: the founding of the Servite Order and the writing of the “Stabat Mater.”

In 1233, seven cloth merchants left Florence to live a life of prayer and penance. Later, the Blessed Mother appeared to them and said, “I have chosen you to be my first servants, and under this name you are to till my Son’s vineyard. Here, too, is the habit which you are to wear; its dark color will recall the pangs which I suffered on the day when I stood by the Cross of my only Son.” Their order became known as the Order of Servants of Mary, or Servites.

According to a British history of the order, Mary told them to wear the habit “not only in memory of her bitter sorrows and anguish, but also in token that this pious remembrance was, through their means, to become perpetuated throughout the earth.” Thus, as the order grew in numbers, its members spread devotion to Mary’s sorrows.

Features of the devotion included the wearing of the black scapular of the seven sorrows of Mary and the recitation of the Servite Rosary, also known as the Rosary (or chaplet) of the seven sorrows.

Way of the mother

In 1645, Pope Innocent X established the Servites’ Confraternity of Our Lady of Sorrows in its present form. Members of confraternity wear the black scapular, say certain prayers and engage in works of mercy. In subsequent centuries, the Servites also promoted the Via Matris (Way of the Mother), a counterpart to the Stations of the Cross, in which the faithful meditate on Mary’s seven sorrows.

Within decades of the founding of the Servite Order, the hymn “Stabat Mater” was composed, likely by the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). The most popular English version, often sung in American parishes at Stations of the Cross, begins, “At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last.”

The hymn became popular in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance and eventually became part of the Liturgy of the Hours as well as the Mass, in which it is an optional sequence before the Gospel. Major composers from the Renaissance to modern times have written their own settings.

Jeffrey Tucker, managing editor of Sacred Music, told OSV that “I’m partial to the amazing version by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36). It is in many movements and probably not viable as a liturgical piece. But as pure musical expression, it is a revelation.”

As the “Stabat Mater” grew in popularity, sacred art also increasingly portrayed Mary’s sorrows. The image of the Pietà, in which Mary holds the dead body of her son, became increasingly popular beginning in the 14th century; Michelangelo’s famous sculpture dates from 1498-99.

Joined in suffering

The people of the time were particularly receptive to devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows because “there was great suffering at times among the masses of people, and the plague spared no social class,” said Father James Phalan, C.S.C., director of Family Rosary International and Holy Cross Family Ministries.

Father Phalan, who serves as president of the Mariological Society of America, told OSV that “as people contemplated this sorrowful Mother with whom they could identify, they saw that while she lamented she also joined herself to that suffering, and as she said ‘yes’ at the time of the Annunciation, she said ‘yes’ to this saving action of Christ and so shared in it.”

Mary’s sorrows came to be commemorated liturgically on the Friday before Palm Sunday and on Sept. 15, the day after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

The Lenten commemoration was celebrated throughout the Church from 1727 until 1969; the September commemoration has been part of the Church’s calendar since 1815.

Outpouring of devotion

In the United States, an outpouring of devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows took place in the late 1930s and 1940s. In 1937, Servite Father James Keane began a perpetual Sorrowful Mother Novena at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica in Chicago. Several sources attest that at the novena’s height, 70,000 people came weekly to the basilica’s 38 novena services. The novena spread to 2,300 other parishes.

The basilica remains a center of devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows in the United States. Other major shrines include the Sorrowful Mother Shrine in Bellevue, Ohio, which is operated by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, and the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland, Ore.

The Oregon shrine, operated by the Servites, is also called simply “the Grotto.” Father Alvin Cabacang, O.S.M., who has ministered there for a year, told OSV that “everyone is welcome, whether it be for the liturgical celebrations, for a visit, or for other services that the Grotto does offer.”

“Catholics just have to look at Mary at her lowest moment and take inspiration from her to have never wavered in her faith in God,” he added. “If Catholics are really to deepen their devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, they just have to make their devotion significant and be reflected in their life. And it is a Christian spirituality worth living for.”

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.