Why do we say the Stations of the Cross?

The Stations of the Cross are an ancient form of prayer that has taken on new meaning for Catholics of all ages today.

They are rooted in the Holy Land, where early Christians followed Jesus' path to Calvary, stopping at various points to pray and meditate. Some say Mary started the practice but there is no documented proof of this.

At the time Christianity spread to other parts of the world, however, it was difficult and often impossible for many Christians to travel very far from their homes, much less to Jerusalem. In the 16th century, when the Turks had control of Jerusalem, pilgrims to the Holy Land were prohibited from stopping and praying along the Via Dolorosa (way of sorrows), as the path was by then named.

These events sparked a desire among European Christians for replicas of Jerusalem's shrines to be built in their land. As early as the 5th century, a group of connected chapels representing the more important shrines of Jerusalem was constructed at the monastery of San Stefano in Bologna, Italy. There was, however, no set devotion or prayer connected with them.

The earliest use of the term "Stations" in connection with the devotion associated with Christ's passion occurs in the writings of an English pilgrim, William Wey, who visited the Holy Land in the mid-1400s.

The first step in the development of the Stations of the Cross, however, did not occur until 1520, when Pope Leo X granted an indulgence of 100 days for those who prayed the Stations, following a set of sculptured Stations, representing the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, in the cemetery of the Franciscan Friary at Antwerp, Belgium. Similar replicas were built in other European cities and devotional writers soon began developing prayers to be said at each Station.

The Franciscans also initiated the practice of displaying the Stations in their churches. In 1686, Pope Innocent XI granted them permission to do so and attached indulgences to be gained by those making the Way of the Cross in Franciscan churches. By 1742, Pope Benedict XIV urged all churches to have the Stations.

Most of the early Stations of the Cross consisted of seven Stations. It was not until 1731 that Pope Clement XII established the 14 Stations of the Cross as we know them today.

The Stations of the Cross now can be found on the walls of Catholic churches. Many also are available outdoors, such as those at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. Although the number of Stations remains officially at 14, some churches have added a 15th for the Resurrection.

Representing aspects of Jesus' passion and death, the Stations of the Cross offer a basic structure to use for prayer and meditation on the suffering Jesus endured and the sacrifice He made to open the doors of eternal life to all of us. They are appropriate for both group and private prayer.

Prior to Vatican II, prayer booklets commonly used to pray the Stations of the Cross emphasized worshipers' sinfulness and need for reparation. Many of the hundreds of different versions--including some specifically for children--available today in booklets, prayer books, and on the Internet, help worshipers identify the suffering Christ with the suffering and sacrifices in their own lives and in the world.

The Stations of the Cross continue to be a favorite form of group prayer for Lent but there is also growing interest in using them for private meditation throughout the year. They can, for example, be a valuable prayer for those concerned with social justice issues.

Oblates© March/April 2003•Volume 60•Number 2•pp. 18, 19

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