Devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows
A model of how to stand among people in grief and worry
Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, is the patroness of the religious community to which I belong, the Congregation of Holy Cross. Her feast day is Sept. 15. At first glance, we might expect our community’s feast day to be the day before, the Triumph of the Holy Cross, on Sept. 14. However, our community was named for a place and not for the devotion.
Mary stood next to suffering. Our Lady of Sorrows becomes a way of ministry, an imitation of the life of Mary in relationship to her suffering Son. The Seven Dolors, the seven moments of suffering in Jesus’ life, invites us into a path of life, redemption and hope in the midst of ministry for all priests.
It took me years to understand this image of Mary. As a young religious, I did not pay much attention to our patroness. I considered this image to be too pious. I had not encountered the human suffering of people to really take to heart this mystery. It was only with maturity in my own life and encountering my own human loss and stubborn ego that I finally turned to Our Lady of Sorrows for help.
I have had many encounters with people inviting me to trust this image. Just a few years ago a young man came to speak with me. He carried his young son into the office to visit with me. He told me that his mother had physically abused him as a child. He went on to speak about the devastating effects his early childhood had on his life. However, he also told me that he had turned to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, because he knew within his heart that Mary would not abuse him and that she would help him raise his son.
Some years ago a woman came to our parish seeking help. She had a year of sobriety after 30 years of heavy drinking. In fact, she drank every day until she blacked out. In her drunkenness, she delivered a child on her apartment floor. Her son died of a drug overdose at 16. She was not Catholic, yet she had found a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. In fact, she tattooed the image of Mary’s heart and the seven swords on her chest, over her own heart. She had the tattoo artist imbed ashes from her dead son into each of the swords.
One of the most profound insights about Our Lady of Sorrows came from this woman. When she got the tattoo, she realized that the first sorrow of Mary hurt the most, since the first sword of the tattoo was the most painful for her. She also connected that first piercing with her own first sorrow, which was not losing her son, but having been sexually abused as a child.
As priests, we also stand next to suffering. We hold within our own bodies the pain of our people. We listen carefully to stories we wish we could change or heal, but we know we cannot change the suffering of our people. We hold this pain within our hearts as a way to pray, as a path to understanding the depth of human experience as well as the healing grace of Jesus Christ.
I so often do not know where to turn when I encounter people’s suffering. Our Lady of Sorrows gives me the spiritual depth to listen to folks, to walk with them and to have a heart that understands them. As priests, we can’t flee from others’ pain. We are constantly challenged to enter into such mystery and uncertainty. Our Lady of Sorrows offers us a model of how to stand among people in grief and worry. We can’t change people’s situations or control events or decisions in their lives. We can, however, learn a spiritual practice that makes sense out of suffering and our ability to enter into people’s stories.
Our Lady of Sorrows has offered me consolation when my life has been deeply wounded and when fear has unraveled me. I have learned to lean into her, to ask her for help and to model her posture toward her Son’s pain. As I have dealt with my own suffering and doubt, I now am able to invite others into relying on Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, our patroness and model of faith.
FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Colorado Springs, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel in Manitou Springs and Holy Rosary Chapel in Cascade, Colorado.