The Stations of the Cross or Way of the Cross is an extremely popular practice for Christians all around the world. It is a series of images that depict Jesus Christ on the day of his death that are accompanied by various prayers. The stations imitate Christ’s journey along what is believed to be the path that Jesus walked to Mount Calvary. The purpose is for faithful Christians to make an intense pilgrimage by relating themselves to the sorrows of our Lord and by contemplating His struggles. Normally, 14 images are arranged in a numbered order along a path or on the walls of a church. Those participating move from image to image, taking time to reflect on the image and to pray. This can either be an individual meditation or done with a group, with a leader initiating the prayers and reflections. The meditations given can be written by various people, even non- Catholics, which some writers have been. St. Pope John Paul II used them for the Great Jubilee in 2000 when the traditional stations were prayed.
How the images are arranged, what prayers are said, and other aspects of how the prayers are said can vary from church to church. Typically, the images are reflected by small plaques on the inner walls of the church. Many modern stations tend to be minimal, while older versions are very ornate and detailed. The stations do not even need to be said with any images at all. For example, the pope leads the stations around the Roman Colosseum on Good Friday. Most commonly, it is done as a procession on Good Friday, the day our Lord went through the passion.
This beautiful celebration of the Stations of the Cross is prayed by many, especially during the Fridays of Lent, but it can be practiced at any time. When communities come together to pray, various songs and prayers are used. Commonly, the Stabat Mater is used. The space in between stations is usually filled with Adoramus Te. The Alleluia can be sung, except during Lent, in which the word is not used until Christ is proclaimed risen. It is now one of the most popular practices, especially during Lent, for Western Churches. Many Christians look forward to participating in this devotion, but many also do not know its history and what it comes from.
Pop culture and media often reference this devotional practice. The Passion of the Christ (2004) by Mel Gibson is extremely popular and is chronicles same events seen in the Stations of the Cross. However, it does not include the sometimes added 15th station (Jesus is Resurrected).
This practice originated from pilgrimages in Jerusalem and a want by early Christians to follow the path Jesus walked, the Via Dolorosa. This was not a new concept; people had been imitating and visiting Holy Places for centuries in order to grow in their faith. However, not all people could physically make the journey or practically afford it. There was a feeling of separation from Our Lord for many Christians who could not visit the Holy Land.
Jerusalem was controlled by Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, in 1187. About 40 years later the Franciscans, led by St. Francis of Assisi, were allowed to travel back to the Holy Land. St. Francis was known to have a special devotion towards the Passion and for that, is said to be the first person to receive the stigmata, the wounds on Christ’s feet, hands, and side given during the crucifixion. His devotion to Christ on the Cross is what initially inspired him to create this particular devotion. In 1217, St. Francis also founded the Custody of the Holy Land, which was run by fellow Franciscans and was dedicated to guarding holy places. Pope Clement VI official proclaimed them as custodians of holy places in 1342. The beginning of visiting these places began here, but the stations as we know it started to become more concrete after William Wey visited the Holy Land in the 15th century and used the words “stations” in his narrative of the journey. His book (Geystlich Strass, or German for “spiritual road”) was published in 1521 and depicted the popular stations pilgrims visited in the Holy Land with illustrations.
Franciscans began to build various shrines around Europe, placed in building along the sides of the church, in order to mimic the actual sites in the Holy Land during the 15th and 16th centuries. The numbers of stations then grew up to 30, but 7 was the most common. Pope Innocent XI allowed the Franciscans to put stations within their own churches and in 1731, all churches were allowed to have stations according to Pope Clement XII. However, a Franciscan father had to erect them, and the bishop of the area had to allow it. This is also when the number became a fixed 14. By 1857, English bishops could erect the stations by themselves, no Franciscan needed, and by 1862, bishops around the world were granted this right.
The early set of seven scenes was usually numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11 and 14 from the list below. The standard set from the 17th to 20th centuries has consisted of 14 pictures or sculptures depicting the following scenes:
Here is a list of the universal 14 stations and their respective scenes:
- Jesus is condemned to death by Pontius Pilate
- Jesus carries His cross
- Jesus falls for the first time
- Jesus meets His mother, Mary
- Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls for the second time
- Jesus interacts with the women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls for the third time
- Jesus is stripped of His clothes
- Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus is taken down from the cross
- Jesus is placed in the tomb
The common 7 mentioned earlier were often 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11, and 14 on the above list. While it is not always accepted, the Resurrection of Jesus can be used as an extra 15th station.
Only 8 of the stations actually have a scriptural foundation out of the 14 universal stations. (The ones with no scriptural context are 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9. Station 6 and the story of Veronica only became known in the middle ages.) Station 13, which describes Jesus being taken off the Cross and being placed in the Blessed Mother’s arms might elaborate the gospel, which only discusses Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus down from the cross and burying Him. St. Pope John Paul II wanted to create a version that was more closely related to the gospels and named in the Scriptural Way of the Cross (Good Friday 1991). Pope Benedict XVI approved this set of stations for meditation and public celebration in 2007.
The Pope used the Scriptural Way many times and the stations and what they represent are shown in the following list:
- Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested.
- Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin.
- Jesus is denied by Peter three times.
- Jesus is judged by Pontius Pilate.
- Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns.
- Jesus takes up his cross.
- Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross.
- Jesus interacts with the women of Jerusalem.
- Jesus is crucified.
- Jesus promises his kingdom to the sinner on the other cross.
- Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other.
- Jesus dies on the cross.
- Jesus is laid in the tomb.
These devotions can be done personally in the Roman Catholic Church by moving from one station to another, praying and meditating on the scene at each station. It can be also done with an official celebrant who moves to and from each station and those in the pews follow along with the guided prayers and meditations. The stations must contain a cross, not simply pictures, and they have to be blessed by someone who has been given Church authority to bless stations.
St. Pope John Paul II led a Stations devotion at the Roman Colosseum each Good Friday. He carried the cross himself to and from each station, however in his later years as Pope, his old age made him unable to carry the cross. So, the Pope watched and prayed on Palatine Hill, while others were designated to carry the cross to the stations. Saint Pope John Paul II prayed the Stations of the Cross right before his death in 2005 in his personal chapel.
The Stations of the Cross is a beautiful way to adore Christ and understand His struggles and all He does for us. Hopefully this brief history will inspire you to participate in the Stations when offered at your Church or create a deeper understanding for your next time. God Bless.