Catholic Hymns You Should Know: Stabat Mater

Daniel Witham

Catholic Hymns You Should Know: Stabat Mater

One of my favorite Marian hymns is the Stabat Mater. This hymn is popular and well known, and often translated into English under the title At the Cross her Station Keeping

Having celebrated the feasts of Our Lady’s Assumption and her Queenship, we can look forward to celebrating another three marian feasts next month in September: September 8th is the Nativity of Mary, September 12th is the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, and September 15th is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Stabat Mater is actually the liturgical sequence assigned to this final feast. 

A sequence is a hymn inserted between the Alleluia of the Mass and the Gospel. Sequences became popular in the middle ages and local Churches would sometimes have used their own repertoire of sequences of all different feasts. It was after the Council of Trent and the standardization of the Roman Rite under Pope Puis V (1570) that most sequences were suppressed. Only four remained: Easter’s Victimae Paschali Laudes, Pentecost’s Veni Sancte Spiritus, Corpus Christi’s Lauda Sion Salvatorem, and the sequence Dies Irae for Mass on All Souls’ Day and other Masses for the dead. When the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows was adopted into the universal liturgical calendar in 1727, Pope Benedict XIII allowed it to use this 13th century hymn as a sequence, bringing the total to five. (With the changes to the liturgy in 1969, the Dies Irae was removed from the Mass for the dead.) 

The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows also has an interesting history. It actually comes to us from two different feasts. One began as the feast of Our Lady of Compassion, which became popular in local calendars in the 1600s and was usually set for the Friday before Palm Sunday. This was the feast which was extended to the whole Church in 1727. Another feast was popular around the same time with the Servite order. It celebrated the Seven Sorrows of Mary on the 3rd Sunday in September. In 1814 it was also extended to the universal calendar, and in 1913 it was moved to a fixed date of September 15, directly following the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. From 1814 to 1969 there were therefore two feasts commemorating Our Lady of Sorrows and both used this hymn. The reform of the liturgical calendar in 1969 decided to simplify things and keep only one feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, on September 15, where it remains today. 

The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is a day to remember Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross. She was silent, patient, and felt the fullness of the sufferings of her beloved son as he died for us. On this feast we think of Mary as a kind of priestly figure. She stood at the cross and offered her Son up to the Father to be our saving sacrifice. 

Mary is blessed as the Mother of God, conceived without sin. She is also blessed because of her faith, hope, and love which were so strong in her at the time of Jesus’ passion. In fact, the apostles had all scattered and run away. Jesus’s disciples mostly had given up on him and were fearful at this time. Only Mary knew and remembered Jesus’s promise that he would rise victorious from the dead. Some have said that at the passion, death, and burial of Jesus, the faith of the whole Church was kept up only in one heart: the Blessed Virgin Mary’s. 

This feast is a time to recall Our Lady’s suffering at the foot of the cross and the glories it merited her. Our hymn is assigned to this day, but is also popular during Lent and Passiontide because it is a beautiful reflection on our own call to dwell beneath the cross of Jesus. The hymn’s text reads: 

Stabat Mater dolorosa iuxta Crucem lacrimosa, dum pendebat Filius. 

Cuius animam gementem, contristatam et dolentem pertransivit gladius. 

O quam tristis et afflicta fuit illa benedicta, 

mater Unigeniti! 

Quae maerebat et dolebat, pia Mater, dum videbat nati poenas inclyti. 

Quis est homo qui non fleret, matrem Christi si videret in tanto supplicio? 

Quis non posset contristari Christi Matrem contemplari dolentem cum Filio? 

At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last. 

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing, all His bitter anguish bearing, now at length the sword has passed. 

O how sad and sore distressed was that Mother, highly blest, of the sole-begotten One. 

Christ above in torment hangs, she beneath beholds the pangs of her dying glorious Son. 

Is there one who would not weep, whelmed in miseries so deep, Christ's dear Mother to behold? 

Can the human heart refrain 

from partaking in her pain, 

in that Mother's pain untold?

Pro peccatis suae gentis vidit Iesum in tormentis, et flagellis subditum. 

Vidit suum dulcem Natum moriendo desolatum, dum emisit spiritum. 

Eia, Mater, fons amoris me sentire vim doloris fac, ut tecum lugeam. 

Fac, ut ardeat cor meum in amando Christum Deum ut sibi complaceam. 

Sancta Mater, istud agas, crucifixi fige plagas 

cordi meo valide. 

Tui Nati vulnerati, 

tam dignati pro me pati, poenas mecum divide. 

Fac me tecum pie flere, crucifixo condolere, 

donec ego vixero. 

Iuxta Crucem tecum stare, et me tibi sociare 

in planctu desidero. 

Virgo virginum praeclara, mihi iam non sis amara, fac me tecum plangere. 

Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender Child 

All with bloody scourges rent: 

For the sins of His own nation, saw Him hang in desolation, Till His spirit forth He sent. 

O thou Mother! fount of love! Touch my spirit from above, make my heart with thine accord: 

Make me feel as thou hast felt; make my soul to glow and melt with the love of Christ my Lord. 

Holy Mother! pierce me through, in my heart each wound renew of my Savior crucified: 

Let me share with thee His pain, who for all my sins was slain, who for me in torments died. 

Let me mingle tears with thee, mourning Him who mourned for me, all the days that I may live: 

By the Cross with thee to stay, there with thee to weep and pray, is all I ask of thee to give. 

Virgin of all virgins blest!, 

Listen to my fond request: 

let me share thy grief divine;

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem, passionis fac consortem, et plagas recolere. 

Fac me plagis vulnerari, fac me Cruce inebriari, 

et cruore Filii. 

Flammis ne urar succensus, per te, Virgo, sim defensus in die iudicii. 

Christe, cum sit hinc exire, da per Matrem me venire ad palmam victoriae. 

Quando corpus morietur, fac, ut animae donetur 

paradisi gloria. Amen. 

Let me, to my latest breath, 

in my body bear the death 

of that dying Son of thine. 

Wounded with His every wound, steep my soul till it hath swooned, in His very Blood away; 

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh, 

lest in flames I burn and die, 

in His awful Judgment Day. 

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence, by Thy Mother my defense, 

by Thy Cross my victory; 

While my body here decays, 

may my soul Thy goodness praise, safe in paradise with Thee. Amen. 

This hymn provides a beautiful way to meditate on Mary’s suffering and ask her to allow us to join her, spiritually, at Calvary. We can aspire to have the faith of Mary’s heart, even when the whole world seems to have forgotten about Our Lord. 

The hymn also has a beautiful melody which you might have heard before. It has a rhyme scheme which is characteristic of sequences. You can listen to it here in English: 

and here in Latin: