Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows reminds us of the redemptive and salvific role of suffering

Our Lady of Sorrows Our Lady of Sorrows at the Church of the Holy Cross in Salamanca. | Zarateman via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

As an increasingly secularized and materialistic society encourages people to eschew suffering, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the redemptive and salvific role suffering plays in human nature. 

The feast, which is celebrated Sept. 15, encourages us to reflect on the seven sorrows of Mary, which culminated in Christ’s death on the cross. Through this reflection, Catholics remember the unique role Mary’s suffering played in redemption and are reminded to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [Christ],” as commanded in Matthew 16:24. 

“If [suffering is] going to happen to the Mother of God, it’s going to happen to us all,” Joshua Benson, professor of theology at The Catholic University of America, told CNA. 

The Catholic devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows is nearly 1,000 years old. It gained popularity throughout the Mediterranean in the 11th century and the Servite Order, founded in 1233, helped spread the practice. The order received permission to celebrate a votive Mass to the devotion in 1668 and Pope Innocent XII instituted a feast day for the devotion in 1692. 

Our Lady of Sorrows focuses on the seven dolors, or sorrows, of Mary. They begin with St. Simeon’s prophecy told to the Blessed Mother and culminate in the events of the passion and death of Christ.

Benson told CNA that the feast day invites us to contemplate Mary’s suffering. He noted the importance of remembering the great hope for final joy, which Mary sees in the assumption, but added: “That’s not without the cross.” 

“A major part of discipleship and communion with Christ will be how we deal with suffering and how we deal with sorrow,” Benson said. “And there will be sorrow.” 

Redemptive suffering

Although Catholics are called to focus on Mary’s suffering on this feast day, the faithful should also remember that it is not just the Blessed Mother who is called to take part in the suffering of Christ on the cross; rather, it is a calling for all of humanity. 

“We experience sorrow in our life … so finding a way to connect to the mother of God in this makes sense,” Benson told CNA. “It’s important.”

St. John Paul II wrote in Salvific Doloris that the New Covenant speaks to the greatness of the redemption, which was accomplished through the suffering of Christ. Through the cross, not only is humanity redeemed, “but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,” he said. When an individual takes up his cross and his suffering, he is “spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him.”

“The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man,” St. John Paul II taught. “Every man has his own share in the redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”

Benson told CNA that through suffering, man “can be connected to and imitate Christ himself,” adding that “even suffering has some sort of purpose, has some sort of meaning” and those experiences can be used to “whittle away the things in me I don’t need” and that it can being a “greater dependency on God.” 

As an example, he noted that self-imposed suffering, such as fasting, can put the teaching that “men cannot live by bread alone” into practice, and a person can “open up space within [himself] that God can fill.” 

“[An individual’s] suffering has meaning as part of that corporate whole, the mystical body,” Benson said.

St. Josemaría Escrivá, who founded Opus Dei, emphasized the importance of pain and suffering in many of his writings: “Let us bless pain. Love pain. Sanctify pain... Glorify pain!” he wrote in “The Way.” 

“I’m going to tell you which are man’s treasures on earth so you won’t slight them: hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, dishonor, poverty, loneliness, betrayal, slander, prison,” Escrivá also wrote in the same work. 

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Father Robert Gahl, an associate professor of Church management and director of Church management programs at The Catholic University of America, told CNA that Escrivá saying “let us bless pain” is a challenging text but that he is not speaking of this to encourage “some sort of masochism,” but instead, “it really revolves around love and the freedom of love.”

“Suffering is an opportunity to give oneself up to the Beloved” by offering up that sacrifice to Christ, Gahl said. 

Gahl added that people can lift up all things by offering them through “an attitude of self-gift to the Father,” which is “a viable path for redemption.” He said that by “uniting our activity and by uniting the world to the holy Eucharist, we can unite them to the sacrifice of Calvary” and “all things can be made holy.”

Although Gahl noted that “suffering is always negative and one can’t eliminate that because it’s always the lack of some good,” it can be elevated to a good when “one turns one’s mind … toward God and toward one’s labor” and “offers this to God … for love directed for the benefit of someone else.” 

Self-imposed suffering, such as fasting, Gahl noted, is “very often an opportunity for an act of charity” because one can forgo food and offer it up to another. A person fasting can also offer up a fast to the hungry through prayer “that through the communion of saints … we can send those graces instantaneously across the world.”

The suffering of others in the world also provides people with an avenue to serve Christ. Gahl noted that suffering in others is “a call to us, an invocation so that we might reach out to them, care for them, and find Christ in them and find Christ in the suffering.”

“Suffering is a call to offer oneself as a gift for the others [and to] go beyond oneself and give oneself for others,” Gahl said.

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