Question: "What are the Seven Sorrows of Mary?"
Answer: The Seven Sorrows of Mary, also called the Seven Dolors of Mary, are a religious theme and spiritual devotion within Roman Catholic theology. The theme is usually portrayed artistically with a painting of the Virgin Mary pierced with seven swords or crying with seven tears upon her face. In view of this theme, Mary is sometimes referred to by Catholics as “Our Lady of Sorrows” or “The Mother of Sorrows.”
The Seven Sorrows of Mary chronologically follow major events of her life with Jesus where it is assumed she experienced a great deal of sorrow. These events are mostly taken from the Bible. The Seven Sorrows of Mary are as follows:
1. The Prophecy of Simeon (from Luke 2). This sorrow focuses on the prophecies and blessings that Simeon spoke over baby Jesus and His family as they presented Him at the temple (Luke 2:22–40). Simeon prophesies to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too,” likely referencing the grief she will experience when Jesus dies on the cross.
2. The Flight to Egypt (from Matthew 2). This sorrow highlights the fleeing of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Egypt as they escaped the murderous rage of King Herod. Herod sought to kill Jesus, along with all boys aged two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13–18). It is assumed this was a sorrowful experience for Mary.
3. The Loss of the Child Jesus in Jerusalem (from Luke 2). This sorrow reflects on the time that the 12-year-old Jesus was left in Jerusalem when His family set out for Nazareth after celebrating the Passover. Jesus stayed behind in the city as His family began to travel back home, and His parents didn’t find Him for three days. When they did, He was sitting with the religious teachers listening to them and asking them questions. Mary said to Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48).
4. The Meeting of Jesus on the Way to Calvary (not mentioned in the Bible). This sorrow is meant to highlight the mourning Mary is assumed to have felt as she watched her son carry a cross to His death. However, there is no record in the Bible of Mary meeting Jesus as He journeyed to Golgotha. Luke 23:27 says, “A large number of people followed Him, including women who mourned and wailed for Him.” While it is possible that Mary was present among this entourage, the Bible never explicitly states that.
5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (from Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19). This sorrow focuses on the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross. While all four Gospels record the crucifixion of Jesus, only the Gospel of John explicitly tells us that Mary was present at the cross (John 19:25–27). It is there that Jesus commissions the apostle John to take care of Mary after Jesus’ death.
6. The Descent of Jesus from the Cross (based on Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19). This sorrow is meant to highlight the assumed grief that Mary experienced in holding her son’s lifeless body as it was brought down from the cross. The Bible tells us that Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:40), but it does not state that Mary was present when this happened or that she ever held His body.
7. The Burial of Jesus (also from Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19). This sorrow focuses on the moment that Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb (John 19:42) and highlights the assumed sorrow Mary experienced in finally saying goodbye to her son. Again, the Bible does not explicitly state that Mary was present at the burial of Jesus or that she took part in the process.
All these events in Mary’s life were surely challenging and difficult experiences. She likely did experience great levels of grief as a mother who watched her child suffer in various ways. Yet, as mentioned, the Bible does not explicitly say that she experienced sorrow at any one of these events. In fact, in several of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, assumptions must be made that Mary was present and did or said something that the Bible never records.
Catholics will often study or follow the Seven Sorrows of Mary as a way of relating to her as they deal with their own sorrows in life. Many rituals and superstitions surround the observance of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. In the thirteen century, seven merchants in Florence, Italy, claimed to have been visited by Mary, who instructed them to establish a new order of friars. The merchants left their homes and families and founded the Servite Order, particularly dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. The order was sanctioned by Pope Alexander IV in 1256. A rosary (or chaplet) of the Seven Sorrows is called the Servite Rosary.
In 1815, Pope Pius VII approved a series of prayers in honor of the Seven Sorrows. Each prayer begins with “I grieve for you, O Mary most sorrowful . . . “ and is followed by the Hail Mary. According to the fourteenth-century St. Bridget, patron saint of Sweden, there are seven graces that Mary bestows upon those who meditate daily on the Seven Sorrows. These graces include comfort, spiritual defense, sanctification, and the promise of seeing Mary’s face at the moment of death. The Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is September 15.
The Bible does place an emphasis on working through pain and struggle as children of God (see John 16:33 and Acts 14:22). However, nowhere does the Bible teach us to pray to Mary, meditate on her pain, or worship her for the work she did as the mother of Jesus. In fact, Hebrews 4:16 says that we have access to the throne room of God where we can bring our requests directly to Him through prayer.
Can a believer study the sorrowful moments of Mary’s life and appreciate the unique challenges she experienced as the mother of the Messiah? Yes. Should a believer pray to Mary or expect special blessings from her? No, absolutely not. The Bible commands us to worship God alone (Exodus 20:3).