Michelangelo’s Pietà is probably one of the most famous portrayals of the Virgin Mary known to mankind. Every year millions of tourists, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, visit St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, where they can gaze upon the sculpture of the Blessed Mother as she cradles her son after his crucifixion.
Like the many images that show Mary weeping as she stands at the foot of the Cross, or with seven daggers piercing her heart, the Pietà is an example of a type of art which depicts the Virgin Mary as Mater Dolorosa (the Mother of Sorrows).
The memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, which we observe today, is actually a blending of two feasts. Sometime in 1221, an altar in honor of Mater Dolorosa was erected in a monastery in Schönau. Devotion spread and a few centuries later, recognizing the faith of its people, a synod in Cologne established a feast for Our Lady of Sorrows. Pope Benedict XIII moved the feast to the Friday of Passion Week (one week before Good Friday), when he opened its celebration to the entire Church in 1727.
After its foundation in 1233, the Order of the Servants of Mary (Servites) began celebrating a similar feast. The Servites spent a great deal of time reflecting on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Simeon’s Prophecy (Luke 2:34–35), The Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13), The Loss of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:43–45), Mary Meeting Jesus on the Way to Golgotha, Jesus’ Death on the Cross (John 19:25), Jesus’ Deposition from the Cross (Matthew 27:57–59), and Jesus’ Burial (John 19:40–42). Pope Pius VII extended observance of their feast to the Roman Catholic Church in 1814, assigning it to the third Sunday in September. Pope Pius X moved the feast to September 15.
In 1969, with the changes to the liturgical calendar, the two feasts were combined and ranked as a memorial.
While the universal Church spends the day focusing on Mary’s anguish and grief, Dominicans also reflect on her role as an intercessor before the Lord. We recognize that Mary, who participated so intimately in Christ’s Passion, understands the full effect of our sins. And yet, like a mother pleading for her wayward children before a judge, she stands before the Lord and begs for our pardon. Mary’s tears, on our behalf, speak more eloquently than any lawyer ever could. With this in mind, we may pray, “Remember Virgin Mother, when you stand in the presence of God, that you speak good things for us, and that you avert his indignation from us” (Offertory Antiphon for Mass of Our Lady of Sorrows according to the Dominican Rite).