Via Dolorosa: The Origins of the Stations of the Cross

St. Leonard's Way of the Cross | Stations of the Cross for the Elderly

While many believe the Franciscans founded the devotion of the Stations of the Cross, its roots precede the followers of St. Francis by several centuries, and its development draws from numerous sources.

To understand the Stations of the Cross, one needs to examine the medieval mind. Since much of the piety of the Middles Ages was focused on the suffering humanity of Christ, we might view many of the common devotional practices of the time as bordering on the morbid. Jesus, bloodied and battered, was the object of intense medieval adoration. Devotions that centered on the sacred wounds, the precious blood, the supposed "Seven Falls," the seven last words, the crown of thorns, and the holy cross flourished.

Inflamed by the desire to join spiritually in Christ’s passion, death, and burial, the well-to-do often made pilgrimages to the Holy Land. While a via sacra ("sacred way") is mentioned by the twelfth century, the word "station," referring to a stop or halting place, was first used by an Englishman, William Wey, who visited the Holy Land in 1458 and 1462.

In the beginning, the customary route apparently was the reverse of ours, starting with Calvary and ending at Pilate’s house. In addition, many of the stops — including the house of Dives, the city gate, the Ecce Homo arch, the Blessed Virgin’s school, and the house of Simon the Pharisee — are no longer considered part of the Via Dolorosa ("Sorrowful Way").

When medieval pilgrims returned home, they often brought back a bit of Palestine. In addition to relics, the pilgrims also brought back the desire to re-create scenes from the Holy Land in order to share their experiences with those unable to visit the holy places firsthand.

When the Turks closed access to the Holy Land, European replicas of the sacred sites became increasingly popular. Commemorative shrines were set up in as many as thirty different locations, including Córdoba, Antwerp, Nuremberg, Rhodes, and Louvain.

While the intent was to "re-create" the sacred way, the number of stops varied from as many as forty-two to as few as five. Our current number seems to have derived more from pious literature than actual pilgrim practice. A book written in 1584 lists twelve stations identical to our first twelve; and devotional manuals known as "spiritual pilgrimages," from Germany and the Low Countries, popularized the idea of fourteen stations, but the number was not mandatory. The diocese of Vienne, for instance, used a set of eleven stations as late as 1799.

One popular German devotion that seems to have exercised considerable influence over the development of the Stations of the Cross was the Seven Falls of Christ. Although the Gospels do not mention any falls, pious tradition held that Christ fell seven times on the way to Calvary, the number seven perhaps corresponding with the seven deadly sins he would soon conquer.

Jesus was thought to have fallen when he met his mother, when Simon of Cyrene took Jesus’ cross, when Veronica used her veil to wipe his face, and when the women of Jerusalem began to weep — incidents that are reflected in our fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth stations. The other three falls, which correspond to our third, seventh, and ninth stations, may have had no other distinguishing characteristics and were retained simply as falls.

The Franciscans became active in the development of the stations when they gained custody of the sacred sites of Jerusalem in 1343 and began promulgating devotion to Christ’s passion. One friar, St. Leonard of Port Maurice, expressed his zeal by erecting 571 sets of stations between 1731 and 1751, becoming known as the "preacher of the way of the cross." It is likely he was also responsible for reversing the order of the stations so that they ended at Calvary rather than at Pilate’s house.

In 1686, Pope Innocent XI granted to the Franciscans the exclusive right to build stations and, in addition, attached the same indulgence to making the stations as to visiting the sacred sites in Jerusalem. At first, only those associated with the Franciscans, such as members of the Third Order, could obtain the indulgences, but Pope Benedict XIII opened the practice to all the faithful in 1726. While the Franciscans maintained a monopoly on erecting stations for many years, in 1731 Pope Clement XII extended the right to non-Franciscan churches. Today, most American churches contain them, although many great basilicas and European churches do not.

Because several of the traditional incidents portrayed in the stations are not found in Scripture, Pope Paul VI approved a new, Gospel-based set of stations in 1975. Pope John Paul II himself has prayed this new scriptural Way of the Cross, which begins at the Last Supper and ends with the Resurrection.

Since the Stations of the Cross is essentially a meditation on the passion and death of Christ, it is unlikely that the stations will ever vanish from Catholic devotional life. As the directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops states: "The sound desire to promote liturgical life carries with it the desire to preserve, foster and even spread those devotions that express and nourish the spirit of prayer," including "the devout meditation on the Lord’s passion known as the Way of the Cross."