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  • Writer's pictureHOLY FAMILY PARISH

What are the origins and the meaning of the Stations of the Cross?

The Stations of the Cross which follow the path of Christ from Pontius Pilate’s praetorium to Christ’s tomb have been a popular devotion in parishes, especially during Lent and the preparation for Easter. The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make in spirit, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death. It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn.

The name

In the 16th century, this pathway was officially entitled the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way), or simply the Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis. These names are used to signify either a series of pictures or tableaux representing certain scenes in the Passion of Christ, each corresponding to a particular incident, or the special form of devotion connected with such representations. The erection and use of the Stations did not become at all general before the end of the seventeenth century. Formerly their number varied considerably in different places.

The devotion evolved over time

Tradition holds that our Blessed Mother visited daily the scenes of our Lord’s passion. After Constantine legalized Christianity in the year AD 313, this pathway was marked with its important stations. St. Jerome (342-420), living in Bethlehem during the latter part of his life, attested to the crowds of pilgrims from various countries who visited these holy places and followed the Way of the Cross. Interestingly, St. Sylvia in her Peregrinatio ad loca sancta (380) in which she described in great detail various religious practices, does not mention a particular practice or set of prayers for following the stations.

Reproducing the holy places

The devotion continued to grow in popularity. In the fifth century, an interest developed in the Church to reproduce the holy places in other lands so pilgrims who could not actually travel to the Holy Land could do so in a devotional, spiritual way in their hearts. For instance, St. Petronius, Bishop of Bologna, constructed a group of chapels at the monastery of San Stefano which depicted the more important shrines of the Holy Land, including several of the stations. These may perhaps be regarded as the germ from which the Stations afterwards developed, though it is tolerably certain that nothing that we have before about the fifteenth century can strictly be called a Way of the Cross in the modern sense.

Stations and indulgences

In 1342, the Franciscans were appointed as custodians of the shrines of the Holy Land. The faithful received indulgences for praying at the following stations: At Pilate’s house, where Christ met His mother, where He spoke to the women, where He met Simon of Cyrene, where the soldiers stripped Him of His garments, where He was nailed to the cross, and at His tomb.

About the term “Stations”

William Wey, an English pilgrim, visited the Holy Land in 1458 and again in 1462, and is credited with the term “Stations”. He described the manner in which a pilgrim followed the steps of Christ. Prior to this time, the path usually followed the reverse course of our’s today– moving from Mount Calvary to Pilate’s house. By the early part of the sixteenth century, however, the more reasonable way of traversing the route, by beginning at Pilate's house and ending at Mount Calvary, had come to be regarded as more correct, and it became a special exercise of devotion complete in itself.

The Turks block the access to the Holy Land

and the devotion increases all over Europe

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries several reproductions of the holy places were set up in different parts of Europe. When the Moslem Turks blocked the access to the Holy Land, reproductions of the stations were erected at popular spiritual centers, including the Dominican Friary at Cordova by Blessed Alvarez (d. 1420), who built a series of little chapels, in which, after the pattern of separate Stations, were painted the principal scenes of the Passion, and the Poor Clare Convent of Messina by Blessed Eustochia (early 1400s); Görlitz, erected by G. Emmerich, about 1465; Nuremberg (1468); Louvain (1505); Bamberg, Fribourg and Rhodes (1507); and Antwerp (1520).

Those at Nuremberg, which were carved by Adam Krafft, as well as some of the others, consisted of seven Stations, popularly known as "the Seven Falls", because in each of them Christ was represented either as actually prostrate or as sinking under the weight of His cross.

A famous set of Stations was set up in 1515 by Romanet Bofin at Romans in Dauphine, in imitation of those at Fribourg. In several of these early examples an attempt was made, not merely to duplicate the hallowed spots of the original Via Dolorosa at Jerusalem, but also to reproduce the intervals between them, measured in paces, so that devout people might cover the same distances as they would have done had they made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land itself.

The number of stations

It is not easy to determine how this came to be fixed at fourteen, for it seems to have varied considerably at different times and places. And, naturally, with varying numbers the incidents of the Passion commemorated also varied greatly.

Wey's account, written in the middle of the fifteenth century, gives fourteen, but only five of these correspond with ours, and of the others, seven are only remotely connected with our Via Crucis: The house of Dives, the city gate through which Christ passed, the probatic pool, the Ecce Homo arch, the Blessed Virgin's school, and the houses of Herod and Simon the Pharisee.

When Romanet Boffin visited Jerusalem in 1515 for the purpose of obtaining details for his set of Stations at Romans, two friars there told him that there ought to be thirty-one in all, but in the manuals of devotion subsequently issued for the use of those visiting these Stations they are given variously as nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-seven, so it seems that even in the same place the number was not determined very definitely.

A book entitled "Jerusalem sicut Christi tempore floruit", written by one Adrichomius and published in 1584, gives twelve Stations which correspond with the first twelve of ours, and this fact is thought by some to point conclusively to the origin of the particular selection afterwards authorized by the Church, especially as this book had a wide circulation and was translated into several European languages. At any rate, during the sixteenth century, a number of devotional manuals, giving prayers for use when making the Stations, were published in the Low Countries, and some of our fourteen appear in them for the first time.

It appears doubtful whether, even to the end of the sixteenth century, there was any settled form of the devotion performed publicly in Jerusalem, for Zuallardo, who wrote a book on the subject, published in Rome in 1587, although he gives prayers for the shrines within the Holy Sepulchre, provides none for the Stations themselves. He explains the reason thus: "It is not permitted to make any halt, nor to pay veneration to them with uncovered head, nor to make any other demonstration".

From this it would seem that after Jerusalem had passed under the Turkish domination the pious exercises of the Way of the Cross could be performed far more devoutly at Nuremberg or Louvain than in Jerusalem itself. It may therefore be conjectured, with extreme probability, that our present Stations, together with the accustomed prayers for them, comes to us, not from Jerusalem, but from some of the imitation Ways of the Cross in different parts of Europe.

The subjects of Stations

With regard to the subjects which have been retained in our Stations, it may be noted that very few of the medieval accounts make any mention of either the second (Christ receiving the cross) or the tenth (Christ being stripped of His garments), whilst others which have since dropped out appear in almost all the early lists. Additions and omissions seem to confirm the supposition that our Stations are derived from pious manuals of devotion rather than from Jerusalem itself. The three falls of Christ (third, seventh, and ninth Stations) are apparently all that remain of the Seven Falls, as depicted by Krafft at Nuremberg.


The erection of the Stations in churches did not become common until the end of the seventeenth century, and the popularity of the practice seems to have been chiefly due to the indulgences attached. The custom originated with the Franciscans.

Numerous indulgences were formerly attached to the holy places at Jerusalem. Realizing that few persons were able to gain these by means of a personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope Innocent XI, in 1686, granted to the Franciscans, in answer to their petition, the right to erect the Stations in their churches, and declared that all the indulgences that had ever been given for devoutly visiting the scenes of Christ's Passion, could thenceforth be gained by Franciscans and all others affiliated to their order if they made the Way of the Cross in their own churches. Innocent XII confirmed the privilege in 1694 and Benedict XIII in 1726 extended it to all the faithful.

In 1731, Clement XII still further extended it by permitting the indulgenced Stations to all churches, provided that they were erected by a Franciscan father with the sanction of the ordinary. At the same time he definitely fixed the number of Stations at fourteen.

Benedict XIV in 1742 exhorted all priests to enrich their churches with so great a treasure, and there are few churches now without the Stations. In 1857 the bishops of England received faculties from the Holy See to erect Stations themselves, with the indulgences attached, wherever there were no Franciscans available, and in 1862 this last restriction was removed and the bishops were empowered to erect the Stations themselves, either personally or by delegate, anywhere within their jurisdiction.

In 1773 Clement XIV attached the same indulgence, under certain conditions, to crucifixes duly blessed for the purpose, for the use of the sick, those at sea or in prison, and others lawfully hindered from making the Stations in a church. The conditions are that, whilst holding the crucifix in their hands, they must say the "Pater" and "Ave" fourteen times, then the "Pater", "Ave", and "Gloria" five times, and the same again once each for the pope's intentions. If one person hold the crucifix, a number present may gain the indulgences provided the other conditions are fulfilled by all. Such crucifixes cannot be sold, lent, or given away, without losing the indulgence.

To date, there are 14 traditional stations:

1. Pilate condemns Christ to death

2. Jesus carries the cross

3. The first fall

4. Jesus meets his blessed Mother

5. Simon of Cyrene helps carry the cross

6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

7. The second fall

8. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem

9. The third fall

10. Jesus is stripped of His garments

11. Jesus is nailed to the cross

12. Jesus dies on the cross

13. Jesus is taken down from the cross

14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Because of the relationship between the passion and death of our Lord with his resurrection, several of the devotional booklets now include a “fifteenth” station which commemorates the resurrection.

Plenary indulgence

A plenary indulgence is granted for those who piously exercise the Way of the Cross, actually moving from station to station where they are legitimately erected and while mediating on the passion and death of our Lord (Enchiridion of Indulgences, #63).

Those who are impeded from visiting a church may gain the same indulgence by piously reading and meditating on the passion and death of our Lord for one-half hour.

The continued importance of the stations in the devotional life of Catholics is attested by both Pope Paul VI who approved a gospel based version of the stations in 1975 and Pope John Paul II who has also written his own version.

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