This year, The Compass is offering a selection of art of the Stations of the Cross from parishes around our diocese. The variety of colors, media and content in each station offers a chance to meditate on God’s mercy that redeemed the world through the Cross of Christ.
The Stations of the Cross — also called the Way of the Cross or Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow in Latin) — have been followed since the church’s early days.
Early Christians were known to retrace the path Jesus walked to crucifixion along the streets of Jerusalem. We also know that pilgrims visited Calvary and Christ’s tomb. The popularly accepted sites were located by St. Helen during a pilgrimage she undertook when she was in her 70s. Her son, the Emperor Constantine, erected the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre there (completed in 335 A.D.).
However, journeys to these holy sites were not easy for most people of Helen’s day (the fourth century), nor for centuries afterwards. As Palestine came under Muslim control after the seventh century, such journeys became even more difficult. In 1095, when Pope Urban II urged the first Crusade, one of his reasons was to assure safe passage to Palestine for pilgrims. When Jerusalem fell to the Turks in the 12th century, travel to the Holy Land became quite rare.
The Franciscans received custody of Jerusalem’s Holy Places in 1335, and secured passage to pilgrimage sites. Returning Crusaders had begun the practice of setting up memorials to the holy sites when they returned home. The Franciscans built on this custom and began to place Stations of the Cross in Franciscan churches across Europe. St. Leonard Casanova, a Franciscan devoted to the stations, is said to have erected more than 500 of them in Italy alone in the span of 20 years (1731-1751).
While modern stations are made with a variety of media, at one time, it was required that the cross of each station be made of wood. This is because the important part of each station is not what part of the Way of the Cross it depicts, but the cross itself. Each station must have a cross attached to it. Even if nothing else is present, the cross alone makes it a valid station.
This is why you may see some older stations that are made of stone or plaster, or even painted on walls, adorned with small, wooden crosses.
The number of the Stations of the Cross is now 14. However, as few as five stations, or as many as 43, have been used. The 14 found in most churches today were set in 1731 by Pope Clement XII. These 14 stations are:
- Jesus is condemned to death.
- Jesus accepts the cross.
- Jesus falls the first time.
- Jesus meets his mother.
- Simon helps carry the cross.
- Veronica wipes Jesus’ face.
- Jesus falls the second time.
- Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem.
- Jesus falls the third time.
- Jesus is stripped of his clothes.
- Jesus is nailed to the cross.
- Jesus dies.
- Jesus is taken down from the cross.
- Jesus is laid in the tomb.
The mid-20th century saw increasing use of a 15th station: the Resurrection. This came about as part of renewed understanding of the church’s early celebration of the Triduum (the “Three Days” between Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday night). This renewal was set down clearly by Pope Pius XII in 1955 with his revision of the Masses of Holy Week. This renewed emphasis on the Triduum helped people realize that these three days as a seamless passage through which the entire mystery of our redemption is revealed.
Another recent change in following the Stations of the Cross deals with what have come to be known as the “Scriptural Stations of the Cross.” A close look at the 14 stations listed above will show that some have no link to any of the Gospels: such as the falls of Jesus or the meeting with Veronica.
It was St. John Paul II who helped raise awareness of the Scriptural Stations of the Cross in 1991. That year, on Good Friday, the pope continued a long-held papal tradition of walking the Way of the Cross in Rome’s Colosseum. However, St. John Paul used the Scriptural Stations instead of Pope Clement XII’s 14.
These scriptural stations focus not just on the events of Good Friday, but take us to the Garden of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday. They start with the Agony in the Garden and Jesus’ arrest.
The Scriptural Stations of the Cross are:
- The Agony in the Garden.
- The arrest and betrayal of Jesus.
- The Sanhedrin condemns Jesus.
- Peter denies Jesus.
- Pilate condemns Jesus to death.
- Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns.
- Jesus is mocked by the soldiers and receives the cross.
- Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross.
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
- Jesus is crucified.
- Jesus promises paradise to the penitent criminal.
- Jesus speaks to his mother and his disciple.
- Jesus dies on the cross.
- Jesus is buried.
While St. John Paul did not end the Way of the Cross with a 15th station, recalling Christ’s Resurrection, any meditation on the 14 stations helps us remember the entire three days of the Paschal event and draws us completely into the power of the Paschal Mystery. And that mystery is what we honor as we pause at each station to say: “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you; Because, by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.”
Sources: “The Catholic Almanac”; “The Question Box”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship”; “The Stations the Cross with Pope John Paul II”; and Vatican News at www.vatican.va.
Kasten is the author of several books, including “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.