“..And a sword will pierce Your own Heart, too..”
– the Prophecy of Simeon
Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ goes back many centuries. She is also known as ‘Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows’ and those sorrowful events are as follows – the prophecy of Simeon; the flight into Egypt; the loss of the boy Jesus; the meeting with Christ on the Way of the Cross; the Crucifixion; the piercing of the Heart of Jesus on the Cross; the burial of Jesus.
In Christian art, the Sorrowful Virgin is often depicted with Her Heart pierced by seven daggers, representing each of the Sorrows listed above. This is a visual representation of the verse in Scripture which forms the basis of the devotion. In Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St Luke, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to be presented in the Temple. The holy man Simeon is there and he recognises the Child as the promised Messiah; taking the Child into his arms, he utters the words of his now famous canticle, the ‘Nunc Dimitis’. And then the Gospel says this –
“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, His Mother – ‘You see this Child, He is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce Your own Heart, too – so that the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.” (Lk.2:34-35)
The great proponents of the devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows are the Servites, (the Order of the Servants of Mary), who were founded in the Thirteenth Century. They adopted this devotion as the principal one of the Order, and would go on to develop the three main forms of the devotion – the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows, the Novena to Our Lady of Sorrows, and the Black Scapular of Our Lady of Sorrows, which is the sign of membership of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Sorrows.
A localised liturgical feast was established in Germany in the fifteenth century, initially under the title of ‘Our Lady of Compassion’ and later renamed ‘Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows’. There were various changes to the feast over the next few centuries and it is now celebrated each year on 15th September, the day following the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
At the start of the Twentieth Century, the devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows took on a new aspect following the alleged revelations to a Belgian mystic called Berthe Petit. Now, it is important to note that these revelations have never received the formal approval of the Church, but neither have they received any condemnation by the Church – simply put, there was never any formal investigation into them. A number of representations were made to the Holy Father, Pope Pius X, and later to his successor, Pope Benedict XV, asking for the devotion to be approved and spread – however, neither Pope felt it was a good time to begin to the work of establishing a new world-wide devotion. These alleged reveltations are mentioned here only because their content touches on our focus here, that of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Berthe Petit is said to have experienced visions of the Lord and His Mother, and on one occasion, she attributes these words to the Lord –
“The Heart of My Mother has a right to be called Sorrowful and I wish this title to be placed before that of Immaculate because She has won it Herself. The Church has defined in the case of My Mother what I Myself had ordained—Her Immaculate Conception. This right which My Mother has to a title of justice is now, according to My express wish, to be known and universally accepted. She has earned it by Her identification with My sorrows, by Her sufferings, by Her sacrifices and by Her immolation on Calvary, endured in perfect correspondence with My grace for the salvation of mankind.” (8 September 1910)
The essential basis of this supposed message is in accord with what the Church has always taught – that, by means of Her intimate co-operation with the Passion and Death of Her Son, She occupies a singular place in the work of salvation. What is interesting is that the Blessed Virgin, according to the supposed revelation, has ‘won’ for Herself the title of ‘Sorrowful’.
The alleged revelations to Berthe Petit focussed on the devotion to the ‘Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary’ and was interwoven with a series of prophecies of events shortly to occur, and which were heavily focussed on particular circumstances that would eventually lead to the First World War.
Although, as mentioned above, these alleged revelations were never formally investigated and, so, did not receive any official approbation, it is true that various Bishops and Cardinals clearly accepted them as being heavenly in origin. The two main figures here were Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, and Cardinal Bourne of England.
In the Spring of 1916, Cardinal Mercier announced that on Good Friday of that year, he intended to consecrate his diocese and the whole of Belgium to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Across the water in England, Cardinal Bourne was also taking forward the devotion as best he was able to. In the Autumn of 1916, he wrote a Pastoral Letter which included these words –
“Nowhere in Christendom should honour be paid more readily to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary than here in England.. Throughout the realm, Our Blessed Lady, God’s Mother, were terms and titles dear to every English heart. England was, in very truth, Our Lady’s dowry. It is, therefore, not with the idea of introducing any new devotion, but rather in order to give fresh meaning and greater force to thoughts long cherished by us all and deep-rooted in the history of our race that we desire to consecrate with renewed effort the prayer, which the special circumstances of the moment so urgently demand, to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary…
For these reasons, we desire and enjoin that in all the churches and public chapels of our diocese, Friday, September 15, the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Blessed Lady, or on the following Sunday, during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stabat Mater be sung, to be followed by the recitation of three Hail Marys and the invocation (repeated after each Hail Mary) “Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us,” in order that, by this public homage, all our dioceses, and, insofar in us lies, our whole country and empire may be solemnly consecrated and dedicated to Our Blessed Lady under this special title..”
Cardinal Bourne went on to renew this Consecration on Christmas Day on that year, and again on the feast of the Queenship of Mary the following year, 1917.
It is notable, too, that despite declining to work for the formal spreading of the devotion to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pope Benedict XV sent a letter to Cardinal Venutelli, Dean of the Sacred College, on 3 May 1915; and that letter ended with a recommendation made to all the Bishops of the world –
“Let us send up our prayers, more than ever ardent and frequent, to Him in whose Hands lie the destinies of all peoples, and let us appeal with confidence to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, the most gentle Mother of Jesus and ours, that by Her powerful intercession She will obtain from Her divine Son the speedy end of the war and the return of peace and tranquility.”
Perhaps one of the most famous images of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary of the recent era, is one which has a connection to Berthe Petit. It was found in the basement of the convent of the Bernardine Nuns in Ollignies, where one of the nuns had been sent to clear out rubbish. The image was found hidden under cardboard and it depicted the Blessed Virgin holding a lily in one hard, the other pointing toward Her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart; this Heart was pierced by a sword, crowned with roses and surrounded by flames. The image became very famous and was used on the front cover of the book of St Louis de Montfort’s ‘The Secret Of The Rosary’. It is now referred to as ‘Our Lady of Ollignies’.