Up until the Second Vatican Council there were two feasts commemorative of the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin. The more ancient, dating from the 15th century, was the feast of the Seven Dolors (“Seven Sorrows”) celebrated on the Friday in Passion Week. It honored Mary’s compassionate suffering during the dark clays of Jesus’ capture and death. Its theme was expressed by incorporating in the day’s liturgy the famous Marian hymn “Stabat Mater”, written in 1306 by Jacopone da Todi.
The second celebration of Mary’s sorrows, fostered by the Servite Fathers (who concentrate on Mary’s griefs), was approved in 1668. It was first assigned to the third Sunday of September. Since then it has been set at September 15.
The orientation of this second feast was slightly different from that of the Passiontide observance. The Servite Fathers had been popularizing devotion to Mary’s sufferings not only on Calvary but throughout her life – a form of piety that dated from the Middle Ages. The list of Mary’s “sorrows” had been gradually extended from five to seven. In religious art you will often see “Our Lady of Sorrows” embracing in pain her heart penetrated by seven swords. One illustration of this image is the bust of Mary over her altar on the top of Mount Calvary in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. The Spaniards who colonized America brought with them their devotion to the Mother of Sorrows under at least two separate aspects. Thus the California Spanish Mission of Our Lady of “Soledad” (“lonesomeness”), commemorates Mary’s day of lonely grief between the burial and the resurrection of Jesus. The name “Nuestra Senora de Dolores” (“Our Lady of Dolors”) was given to still another old mission center in northern Mexico. It is this Spanish Marian title, of course, from which the girls’ name “Dolores” is drawn.
What are the seven sorrows chosen to represent Mary’s constant sharing in the pains of her divine Son?
The first is the prophecy that Simeon made to our Lady at the Presentation: “You yourself shall be pierced with a sword – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare.” (Luke, 2:35).
The second sorrow is the flight into Egypt. Joseph was suddenly told in a dream, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.” (Matt. 2:13).
The third is the losing of Jesus in Jerusalem. When she and Joseph finally found Him, Mary reproached Him, “You see that your father and I have been searching for you in sorrow.” (Luke 2:48).
The fourth is Mary’s encounter with our Lord bearing the cross to Calvary. This is based on a devout conclusion rather than a specific event in Scripture.
The fifth: Mary’s standing before the cross: “Near the cross of Jesus there stood His mother.” (John, 19:25).
The sixth: Mary’s receiving the dead Christ in her arms. The scriptures only tell us that Joseph of Arimathea “took Him down” and laid Him in the tomb. (Mark 15:46). Although Mary’s embracing His dead body in grief is not recorded in the scripture, it is most plausible.
The seventh is Christ’s burial. Our Lady is not mentioned by name in the bible as witnessing the burial, but this was perhaps because others wanted to spare her the pain of laying out her beloved Son in the tomb.
That the Blessed Virgin shared like no other the pains of her Son, is a foregone conclusion. Her feast of the Seven Dolors should remind us of our need to pick up our crosses and follow Him.
–Father Robert F. McNamara