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The Stations of the Cross: One of Catholicism’s most identifiable traditions

PUBLISHED 13 April 2022
By Paul Taylor

Theological background

The Stations or Way of the Cross is one of the most traditional and identifiable devotional practices in Catholicism whereby the faithful are invited to focus their prayer and contemplation on fourteen steps in Christ’s suffering and death (and, in more recent versions, Christ’s resurrection from the dead). The devotional practice can be traced back to the practices of early Christian pilgrims who visited the various historical sites in Jerusalem that came to be associated with Christ’s suffering and death (sometimes known as the ‘Via Dolorosa’). These pilgrimages began in the early patristic period and continued throughout the middle ages. For the benefit of those Christians who could not make these often demanding pilgrimages, local churches produced their own versions of the stations in order to bring the practice closer to home.

Traditional Stations of the Cross

When the Franciscans became custodians of the historical sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 1342, they began to popularise the devotion, and it was not long before the practise spread to other parts of western Europe. Like other devotional practices, there was a degree of variety regarding the number and name of each station. Since around the sixteenth century, there have been fourteen stations, many of which can be identified in parish churches today. This ‘traditional’ set of fourteen was popularised by Leonard of Port Maurice (fl. 1750), who was also involved with establishing the famous set of stations in the Colosseum in Rome.

Revised version

In 1975, the Congregation of Rites in Rome produced a revised version of the Stations of the Cross, where each station is based on an event recorded in Sacred Scripture. While the number remains constant, those stations without scriptural foundation have been deleted, namely, the falls of Jesus, Jesus meeting his mother and Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. This revised version was used at times by Pope (now Saint) John Paul II.

The Stations of the Cross serve a similar role to the passion narratives in the gospels: they invite us to contemplate and draw strength from the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus. The stations connect us with the early Church, whose members looked forward with eager hope to Christ’s coming again in glory. When we look at the stations now, we are called to reflect upon Christ’s example of total gift of self in his suffering and death, and we are invited to follow his path of love, self-sacrifice and service in our lives. The aim is not historical re-enactment of past events but savouring the Lord’s presence among us and being inspired by his words and witness.

When we pray the Stations of the Cross, many of the texts that are used are drawn directly from Sacred Scripture or possibly from the Church’s liturgy. The Scriptures might be used as direct quotations, or in some cases, they are given a new form of address—for example, in the Fourth Station (Jesus before Pilate) in John 18:37: ‘Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this’ becomes ‘Yes, you are a king. You were born for this, you came into the world for this.’ In this way, the words of Jesus become the words of his body, the Church.

When celebrated as a public devotion, the Stations of the Cross take the form of a dialogue between the leader—who may be the bishop, priest, deacon or some other minister—and the people gathered. The response by the people tries to provide a heartfelt response to the event of the passion being depicted. Provision is made for singing (e.g. ‘Stabat mater’ or ‘By the cross, her vigil keeping’) by the people during each station as a way of fostering their contemplation of Christ’s passion and death, and also to cover any processional movement from one station to the next.

Pastoral customs

The Stations or Way of the Cross work best when there is a real sense of processional movement. Stations that are arranged with some distance between each scene (or cross on a wall) provide the best opportunity for a public celebration and can also cater well for private devotion. Public celebrations involve the ministry of the celebrant, who is assisted by a cross bearer, two candle bearers and sometimes a book bearer. Musicians also provide an important leadership role.

In terms of practical details, the following suggestions by Bishop Peter Elliott in Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2002) may be useful:

  • The candles may be lit at the main altar.
  • The celebrant uses a cordless/portable microphone when moving in procession.
  • Cross bearer and candle bearers lead celebrant to the sanctuary.
  • If the celebrant kneels for the opening prayer, servers remain standing.
  • Ministers move to the First Station during the singing of a hymn (e.g. the first verse of ‘Stabat mater’).
  • If a large congregation is present, a few members of the faithful may form a procession.
  • The minister faces the stations; the servers face the celebrant and people.
  • All genuflect during ‘We adore you, O Christ …’, except the servers.
  • After the last station, servers lead the celebrant back to the sanctuary for the final prayer.
  • Following the final prayer, the celebrant may—following a Roman custom—bless all with the wooden cross, if this is used.

The Way of the Cross provides room for devotional adaptation and can be supplemented by dramatisation and the inclusion of Scripture readings, good music, poetry and reverent silence. Judicious use of light and darkness can also be effective in fostering an evocative atmosphere. Whatever form is adopted, the ceremonial should speak for itself without requiring verbose commentaries and without becoming overly sentimental. The Stations of the Cross can also be adapted for use with children.

The version of the stations that is used in each parish during Lent and Holy Week will undoubtedly depend upon the set of stations that is arranged in each worshipping space. Both versions have devotional validity. The revised version is particularly useful during ecumenical gatherings when the stations are prayed, whereas the once ‘traditional’ version is considered by some to be especially appropriate during Lent as it does not yet depict Christ’s resurrection. Whatever version is used, the crucial point is to be still at each station, contemplate Christ’s suffering and death and resurrection, and unite one’s heart, mind and will with the Lord Jesus as represented in the moving scenes.

Traditional stations

  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus carries his cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets his mother
  5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls the second time
  8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
  11. Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Revised stations (1975– )

  1. The Last Supper
  2. The Garden of Gethsemani
  3. Jesus before the Sanhedrin
  4. Jesus before Pilate
  5. Jesus is whipped and crowned with thorns
  6. Jesus carries his cross
  7. Jesus is helped by the Cyrenean
  8. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus is stripped and nailed to the cross
  10. Jesus and the Good Thief
  11. Jesus speaks to Mary and John
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus is buried
  14. Jesus rises from the dead
Dr Paul Taylor is Executive Secretary of the ACBC Bishops Commission for Liturgy and of the National Liturgical Council.

This article was first published in The Summit Online in 2019.
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