Catholics have long associated the Latin term dolor, meaning “sorrow” or “pain,” with the sorrows of Mary, the Mother of God. She is often pictured with seven swords, representing seven sorrows, piercing her sinless heart. What exactly are these seven sorrows, and what are the origins of this particular Marian devotion?
The early Christians, telling of the passion and death of Jesus, remembered the agonizing sorrow the Blessed Mother experienced as she stood at the cross, watching the crucifixion of her divine Son. Devotion to the Sorrowful Mother gained in popularity during the Middle Ages, and, in some locations, meditation on her was expanded beyond the scene at the cross to encompass other events from the time Jesus was arrested until He was laid in the tomb.
Not until 1727, however, was a special day included in the Church’s universal liturgical calendar to recall the sorrow of Mary at the crucifixion and death of Christ. In that year, Pope Benedict XIII added a universal feast, known as the feast of the Sorrows of Mary, to be celebrated the Friday before Passion Sunday. The liturgy that day, the prayers, the readings and the beautiful hymn Stabat Mater (literally, “The Mother Was Standing”) all focus on the Blessed Mother as she stood brokenhearted on the hill of Calvary. This feast day remained on the Church’s calendar until 1969.
The Servites’ Feast
One institution that had long promoted devotion to the sorrowful mother of Jesus was the Servite religious order, founded in Italy in 1234. Five years after their founding they adopted the sorrow of Mary at the cross as their principal devotion.
A second feast, on the third Sunday in September and specifically dedicated to the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was formally granted the Servites by Rome in 1668. As this devotion spread, there was for some years controversy regarding which seven sorrows would be included in the list. It is generally accepted that the list we recognize today originated with the Servites.
The Servites’ feast was extended to the universal Church in 1817 and celebrated each year on the day following the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, which takes place on Sept. 14. Consequently, for 150 years, the liturgical calendar included two similar feast days honoring the Sorrowful Mother: one feast on the Friday before Passion Sunday, and the other in September.
Today, as a result of the Second Vatican Council calendar reforms, there is only one liturgical feast day commemorating the suffering and sorrow of Mary. This feast is an obligatory memorial that takes place on Sept. 15 and is known as the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. While the Seven Dolors are not explicitly noted during the liturgy of this memorial, many Catholics on this day faithfully recall them in Rosaries, prayers, novenas and other devotions.
The Seven Dolors
The Seven Dolors identify seven events or periods in the Blessed Mother’s life when her suffering, prompted by events in her Son’s life, was most intense. Bible scholars have pointed out that while some of the sorrowful events contained in the devotion are not specified in Scripture, they likely did occur. Here are the seven:
Simeon’s prophecy during the presentation of Jesus (see Lk 2:35). Like all firstborn Jewish males, the baby Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem to be presented to God. According to Luke’s Gospel, there was, in the Temple, a devout old man named Simeon who joyfully recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
The happiness of this moment turned somber, however, when Simeon prophesied that the Child’s life would be one of “contradiction.” This prophetic announcement would indeed be fulfilled as the very people Jesus came to save from sin would reject, insult and eventually murder Him.
Simeon further indicated that Mary, too, would suffer, that sharing in His life of rejection would be like a sword piercing her soul. Certainly, such foreboding prophecies must have troubled the young mother.
The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt (see Mt 2:13). Simeon’s prophecy was soon realized. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that when alerted by the Magi to the birth of Jesus, King Herod of Judaea worried that this Child, proclaimed as the King of the Jews, would become a threat to his throne. So, Herod ordered the killing of all boys 2 years old or younger, in and around Bethlehem.
During a dream, an angel warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt. Despite the prospect of such a long journey, Joseph left without hesitation, and the Holy Family remained in Egypt until Herod died. That the Son of God would begin life fleeing from His homeland was yet another indication to Mary of the difficult road Jesus was destined to walk.
The loss of the Child Jesus for three days (see Lk 2:41-46). When Jesus was 12 years old, St. Luke reports, He went with His parents from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The men traveled together in one group, the women in another; the children could travel with either group.
On the way home, Mary and Joseph discovered that Jesus was not with the men or the women. Greatly distressed, they rushed back to Jerusalem and, after three days of desperate searching, found Him unharmed in the Temple conversing with teachers of Jewish law. He was not lost and wondered aloud to a relieved but confused Mary and Joseph, “How is it that you sought me?”
In this event, Our Lady was painfully reminded that Jesus belonged first and foremost to God.
Meeting Jesus on His way to Calvary (see Lk 23:27-31). Tradition holds that Mary was among the women that Scripture tells us lamented Christ’s painful walk with the cross along the way to Calvary. Mary’s grief must have been extreme as she witnessed Jesus, unjustly accused, stumbling, falling with the cross on the road to the place He would die.
She had also likely been part of the crowd that was present when Pilate handed Him over to be crucified, but she could only watch in agonizing sorrow. Now, coming face to face with Him, Mary saw the bleeding, swollen, pitiable state of her Son. His helplessness, desolation and abandonment penetrated her heart.
Beneath the cross (see Lk 23; Jn 19). The Romans used public crucifixion as the form of execution for non-Roman criminals. The Gospels tell us that Mary stood with a few followers of Jesus watching His crucifixion. She no doubt wept to see Him cruelly nailed to a cross, to see the soldiers gamble for His clothes, and to watch His slow, torturous death.
How awful it is for any parent to watch a child die — and no one ever endured more agony than Mary. She was the only person who truly understood who He was and, in her heart, she died with Him.
Jesus is taken down from the cross (see Lk 23; Jn 19). According to Scripture, Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus down from the cross; according to popular tradition, Joseph laid Him in the lap of His grieving mother.
Mary saw the bruises and wounds from all the physical torture Jesus had experienced, including the great open wound caused by the Roman soldier’s lance. She who had given Him His Body and Blood cradled her lifeless Son, the Son of God, in her arms.
Jesus is placed in the tomb (see Mk 15; Lk 23; Jn 19). Mary, broken and grief-filled, no doubt watched as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepared the body of Jesus for burial. They acted without delay, since the Mosaic Law required burial before nightfall.
We can only try to comprehend the immensity of Our Lady’s suffering when the tomb was sealed, as she thought about all the anguish and pain He had endured.
On all these seven occasions, and no doubt many more, our Blessed Mother shared the sufferings of her Son. The sword, as Simeon predicted, did indeed pierce her soul.
When we meditate on these events, we learn to join our own sufferings to those of Jesus and Mary, so that we ourselves might grow in holiness.
D. D. Emmons writes from O’Fallon, Ill.