The doleful eyes looking at the viewer from the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Sorrows in Quito, Ecuador, are unforgettable. She holds her son’s crown of thorns and three nails, her heart pierced with seven swords. That is my favorite picture of Our Lady of Sorrows.
And even though I was one of the last priests to celebrate Mass at Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican before it was encased in glass after a deranged man attacked it, it does not speak to me as does the simplicity of Blessed Fra Angelico’s iconographic imagery. I recall being mesmerized by a Calvary painting of his.
The Sorrowful Mother in the Slovak chapel in the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., affects me similarly. I spent the Tre Ore one Good Friday contemplating her holding her lifeless son’s body on her lap, like on an altar, with her hands supporting him like the way a priest lifts a host on a paten. Her upturned face with closed eyes reflected her heart’s offering of her son’s sacrifice to the Father. To me, that is the Mass in stone.
I was likewise captivated by Sister Mary of the Compassion’s great quasi-iconographic painting of Christ Crucified surrounded by Dominican Saints in the refectory of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C. Being so impressed by it, I doubt that I would be able to eat before so sacred a scene.
Hymns enhanced the visual dimension of my devotion. In particular, the Lenten service in our Polish parish called Gorzke Zale, the Bitter Sorrows. Made up of three parts, each began with the same introductory hymn inviting us to “Rend our hearts,” followed by a scripture reading about the Lord’s Passion. Three hymns followed with reflections on that passage. The first concentrated on the sufferings of Christ, the second focused on the sorrow of Mary, and the third was like an examination of conscience on how that should affect our lives.
Mary’s Sorrows in Scripture and Liturgy
I always looked forward to the Sorrowful Mother hymn in the third part. It contains a painful lamentation: “Oh, how the sword is piercing my heart!” That alludes to the prophecy of Simeon at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple as reported in Luke 2:33. Its fulfillment will be stated by St. John when he includes her as participating in Jesus’ “hour” wherein he undergoes the Paschal Mystery. John initiates that at the wedding banquet in Cana (John 2:4). Jesus makes reference to the arrival of his hour in John 13:1 and 22:23. It concludes in John 19:25 with her standing beside the cross on Calvary.
The Church commemorates Mary’s sorrows liturgically on Sept. 15 with a Mass focusing on the commendation of Our Lord of her as our spiritual mother as well as a model to unite our sufferings with her son as she did for the well-being of souls. There are an additional five votive Masses in the special blue missal of 46 Masses honoring her under various titles.
The Lenten ones commemorate her discipleship. Two center on her presence at the Cross, another focuses on Jesus’ commendation of her as our mother, and finally, as Mother of Reconciliation, each with its specific preface.
The popular devotion to Our Lady’s Seven Sorrows explains the seven swords frequently portrayed piercing her Immaculate Heart. The first commemorates the Prophecy of Simeon about the intense opposition Jesus would encounter as Messiah. The second was endured at the time of the sudden Flight into Egypt to protect the Infant King from a murderous monarch. The third occurred at the Loss of Jesus for three days prefiguring his Paschal Mystery. The fourth piercing was at the sight of Jesus Carrying his Cross, rejected by the insulting mob. The fifth took place on Calvary where she became Co-Redemptrix, meriting her spiritual Motherhood of the Mystical Body of her son, the Church. The sixth happened as her son’s battered body was removed from the Cross, the Lamb of the Atonement. The seventh sword recalls her acute bereavement at his tomb, yet faithfully awaiting his promised Resurrection.
Experiences of Maternal Sorrow
I realize now that perhaps the cause for that attraction was also psychological. I recall serving the funeral of a soldier. At the blessing of the casket at the end of the Mass, I was one of the candle bearers beside the crucifix that led the procession. We stood on the side where we saw the bereaved family. When the prayers were over, a bugler in the balcony somberly played Taps. Suddenly, the mother began to wail her sorrow unrestrainedly. It was a duet that Hollywood could never duplicate. It penetrated me so deeply that I squeezed the candle in my hands. There could not have been a dry eye in that crowded church.
Then there was the day my brother was going into the army. After wishing him well, my mother smiled and waved to him from the porch as a car drove him to his destination. When the door closed, she suddenly collapsed on the stairs behind her that led to the second floor. She began sobbing. Being a youngster, I was surprised and asked her why. She stood up and said, “You don’t understand because you’re not a mother.”
Years later I realized that the thought of losing her son could have reopened distant wounds. My parents lost their first four children as infants. The first was stillborn. Then, during an influenza epidemic, they lost simultaneously a set of twins a year and a half old, followed shortly thereafter with the death of their two-and-a-half-year-old son to the same disease. She feared of not being able to have children, until my sister was born six years later, followed by my brother and myself years apart. Those traumatic memories must have been reawakened in her that day on the porch.
Looking back, I could have unconsciously transposed the painful sorrow of those two mothers to our Sorrowful Mother on Calvary, making that the foundation of my ardent devotion to her.
A Desire Surprisingly Fulfilled
Now I will recount a beautiful gift I received from Our Lady of Sorrows. My first pilgrimage to the Holy Land was disastrous. It was with a seminary group during the Christmas vacation. It was cold and rainy every day and it even snowed. Luckily, I prepared for such weather, thinking that it could be similar to Rome. Sad to say, all the others expected balmy weather. I promised myself another pilgrimage there, but in the summer when the rainy months had passed.
This one was with a diocesan group, including four priests. I had one special desire: to celebrate Mass at the Thirteenth Station on Calvary, the Sorrowful Mother’s altar. Little did I know that all altars had to be reserved way in advance. It meant my omitting going to Bethlehem in order to book that Mass on the day we were scheduled to have Mass on Calvary. So, I decided that Bethlehem was more important since I could concelebrate at the group Mass in the Holy Sepulcher. Later I learned that concelebration was not allowed there.
I prepared for that Mass by doing the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa at 6 a.m. The empty street suddenly resounded with a rooster crowing. Talk about sound effects! I felt like I was on a stage and expected Roman soldiers on horses to suddenly appear and women with jars rushing by.
My group was already gathered around the sacred tomb, leaving me on the fringe. Suddenly, the Catholic Arab, who seemed to be one of the guards there, made his way through our group and asked me if I wanted to celebrate Mass at the Thirteenth Station while the others were at the Eleventh. I was flabbergasted!
Almost unable to speak, I said, “Yes,” and followed him to the sacristy. When he told the sacristan about my celebrating that Mass, the Brother told him that one of their Franciscan priests had it reserved. The guard went and spoke with that priest who kindly relinquished his time so that I could celebrate Mass there. Our Lady arranged it all so that I would not be disappointed. I took this as a gift from her.
It is an awesome thought for a priest to celebrate Mass in Jerusalem where our salvation took place. To realize that the Precious Blood that Jesus shed there would be present in the chalice as he pronounces in persona Christi the words of Consecration. The intervening time between its historical violent shedding and its sacramental non-violent renewal in the Mass seems to lapse, to disappear and it just becomes a “present,” a “now,” a fusion of the two times. They become one and the same sacrifice. This union is indescribable.
The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen chose for his episcopal motto this line from the sorrowful hymn Stabat Mater Dolorosa: Da per matrem me venire. And so now I too pray that motto, “Let me come through [your] mother.”
Father Stanley Smolenski, spma, a Baptistine canonical hermit, is co-founder and director of the Shrine of Our Lady of Joyful Hope - Our Lady of South Carolina in Kingstree, South Carolina.