Friday, March 23, 2018


Alone among the Lenten weekdays, today's Mass for this last Friday of Lent provides a choice of two alternate collects. The second optional alternate is a vestige - the only visible vestige - of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors which used to be kept on this day, before being reduced to a Commemoration in the 1960 pre-conciliar liturgical reform (and then abolished completely in 1969). A duplicate feast, that of the Seven Sorrows on September 15, survived the reforms, although downgraded in rank and now renamed Our Lady of Sorrows (thus eliminating any reference to the number seven). 

Even so, whenever I think of Our Lady of Sorrows ("l'Addolorata"), I unfailingly recall the many popular portrayals of Mary pierced with seven swords! I remember too a beautiful church I once saw in a crowded urban neighborhood which had a statue of Mary pierced with seven swords standing atop its golden dome.

The illustrious 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch, reflecting the antiquarian attitudes so prevalent in the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, contrasted "the older and more austere Lenten Mass" and the "newer, more spirited one devoted to Our Lady's Seven Sorrows." He suggested that, whereas the traditional weekday Mass presents Christ's passion prophetically, figuratively, and historically, in the festive Marian Mass "sentiment and emotion is strong." 

Such distinctions and discussions all seem so obsolete now in the light of an infectious contemporary sentimentality that would make the supposed sentimentality that pre-conciliar liturgists discerned in the old feast of the Seven Dolors appear austere in retrospect!    

It is, of course, quite laudable that the reformed Missal retains a Marian collect today. In actuality, however, I suspect that identifying with Mary in contemplating her Son's Passion (to which that collect refers) primarily occurs for most people, if at all, in such devotional contexts as the praying of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. The many portrayals of the Pieta in Christian art testify to the enduring popularity of the image of the Sorrowful Mother in popular devotion - a devotion which renders the human dimension of the Passion story especially accessible.

Missing  today, however, is what was the liturgical highlight of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors (and the still observed September feast of Our Lady of Sorrows) - the (now optional) Sequence of the Mass, the great Stabat Mater, which Parsch acknowledged as "certainly one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages." Fortunately for the Stabat Mater - and thus for us - that Sequence has also survived as the most common and popular processional music for the Stations of the Cross. For many, surely one of the most memorable and traditional features of the Lenten Stations is the singing of verses of the Stabat Mater during the procession from station to station. The Stations just would not be same without it! The familiar and easily singable popular tune to which it is typically sung also lends itself, by its familiarity, to congregational participation even when the physical circumstances of the place preclude everybody actually joining in the walk from station to station. Well sung, it certainly captures the spirit of Passiontide particularly well, using our natural human sympathy for the Sorrowful Mother to guide us through the deeper mystery of Christ's passion.

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