September 15, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

Mary shares in our sorrow, offers her compassion

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

Last week, this column focused on the joy that we find in our celebration of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today, the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, calls our attention to Mary’s suffering.

In St. Luke’s Gospel, Simeon tells Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the ruin and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign of contradiction; and your own soul a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:34-35). Mary’s child is destined to experience an excruciating passion and death, and his mother will suffer along with him.

Our reflections on Mary’s suffering do not in any way overshadow the joy that we share with her. The horrors of Christ’s passion and death were overcome once and for all by his resurrection from the dead. But by honoring Mary under the title Our Lady of Sorrows we acknowledge that she was (and still is) the model for what compassion (“suffering with”) means for us as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.

Many theologians and spiritual writers have joined with artists and musicians throughout the ages in celebrating the traditional image of the Pietà which powerfully depicts the two aspects of Mary’s suffering—her own sorrow and the suffering of her children.

As Pope Benedict XVI observes:

The image of the grieving Mother, who in her suffering had become sheer compassion and who now holds the dead Christ on her lap, has become especially dear to Christian piety. In the compassionate Mother, sufferers of all ages have found the purest reflection of the divine compassion that is the only true consolation (from the book Credo for Today: What Christians Believe, “Incarnate of the Virgin Mary”).

Mary’s courage and perseverance in the face of pure evil cannot help but encourage us in times of trouble. Nothing that any of us must endure is beyond Mary’s ability to comprehend and share with us. She who stood at the foot of the cross—faithful until the bitter end—has been given to us by her divine Son to be our consolation and hope. Mary accompanies all of us, her children, in good times and in hard times.

I observed that it is impossible to imagine the Catholic Church without her devotion to Mary. The outpouring of love and enthusiasm displayed by the young pilgrims who traveled to Fatima during this summer’s World Youth Day celebration were beacons of hope for every generation. Their songs, their heartfelt prayers and their expressions of confidence in the presence and healing power of the woman of grace who is our spiritual mother were impossible to witness dispassionately. Devotion to Mary brings out the very best in us as individuals and as a Church.

The liturgy for today’s Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows gives us the option of praying the sequence “Stabat Mater” before the proclamation of the Gospel. This medieval hymn has been set to music by many famous composers because its lyrics are truly profound. It begins:

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had passed.
Oh, how sad and sore distressed
Was that Mother highly blessed
Of the sole begotten One!

The sorrow is nearly unbearable, but Mary bears it and emerges triumphant with her Son. As Pope Benedict says immediately following the passage quoted above, “It is because human life is at all times suffering that the image of the suffering Mother is of such importance for Christianity. … The Mother’s affliction is Easter affliction which already inaugurates the transformation of death into the redemptive-being-with of love.” This is why we rejoice with Mary. Her Son’s passion (and her compassion) has freed us from sin and death.

“Only the joy that stands the test of pain and is stronger than affliction is authentic,” Pope Benedict says. Christian joy, the joy we share with Mary, has withstood the tests of intense pain and suffering. That’s why we rejoice with the martyrs and why we honor Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows.

At the end of the Stabat Mater, we pray:

Christ, when you shall call me hence,
Be your Mother my defense,
Be your cross my victory.
While my body here decays,
May my soul your goodness praise,
Safe in heaven eternally.
Amen. (Alleluia.)

We cannot escape suffering any more than Mary did, but we can choose to bear it gracefully as she did. And we can look to the cross of Christ as our sure and certain hope for victory. Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us. May our souls your goodness praise—safe in heaven eternally. †

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