The History of the Devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows

September 13, 2019

The Pastor's Page

The biblical origin of the memorial of our Lady of Sorrows is found in the Infancy Narrative of the gospel of Luke when, during the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Simeon told the Blessed Mother Mary, “You yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35). It was a deeply disturbing message on what should have been an extremely joyful day. Simeon forewarned Mary that she would endure much hardship in the future: burdens and anxiety, pain and suffering, tears and mourning. It was unknown when it would happen, how it would happen, or how hard it would be, but trouble surely was coming. The announcement itself was a sorrow for Mary.

Church historians believe that St. Anselm (1033-1109), a Benedictine monk, bishop, and Doctor of the Church, and the Benedictines, were the first to introduce the concept of Our Lady of Sorrows or the Sorrowful Mother during the Eleventh Century. The first liturgical celebration of the feast was during the Twelfth Century.

By the Fourteenth Century the single sorrow of Mary had been expanded to seven, three from the early years and four from Good Friday. The first three sorrows of Mary are Simeon’s painful prediction (Lk 2:35), the panic-stricken Flight into Egypt and the years spent as a refugee (Mt 2:13-15,19-22), and the acute anxiety of losing her son for three days (Lk 2:48). The final four sorrows of Mary are her encounter with Jesus as he carried his Cross, the torment of standing at the foot of the Cross to witness her son’s suffering and death (Jn 19:25a), the anguish of receiving his lifeless body in her arms as he was taken down from the Cross, and the grief of watching her son’s burial as he was laid in the tomb.

During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries two religious orders, the Cistercians and the Servites of Mary, were strong advocates of the devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows through their preaching and missionary work, and the devotion spread throughout Europe and more broadly to the universal Church. The Servites consider Our Lady of Sorrows as their patron saint, they celebrate her memorial as their patronal feast, and it was first celebrated by their order in 1423 in Cologne, Germany.

The memorial gained greater momentum in 1482 when it was added to the Missal under its former name, “Our Lady of Compassion.” Compassion was used because Jesus’ Passion became Mary’s passion, and as Jesus suffered, she suffered with him.

In 1668 the Servites of Mary introduced a similar devotion to commemorate the Seven Dolors of Mary. It was placed on the Roman Calendar in 1814 and celebrated on the first Sunday after September 14.

In 1727 Pope Benedict XIII universalized the devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows when he placed it on the Roman Calendar, and for nearly two hundred years it was celebrated by the worldwide Church on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Then in 1913 Pope Pius X permanently transferred the memorial to September 15, the day after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14, to combine the celebration of and reflection upon of the Passion of Jesus and the passion of Mary on consecutive days (see Lodi, E., Saints of the Roman Calendar, 264).

About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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