Making the devotion of the Stations of the Cross a part of my personal prayer life has been marked by successes and failures. Yet, more recently, praying the Stations has helped to keep me centered in my life and in my priesthood. I’d like to suggest that this prayer can serve the same purpose for all priests.
History of the Stations of the Cross
During the Crusades (1095–1270), it became popular for pilgrims to the Holy Land to walk to Calvary following the footsteps of Jesus (Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed., McBrien. HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1995). There are at least two reasons why more people didn’t make the pilgrimage: the difficulty of making a journey to the Holy Land and the fear that the journey was dangerous because the Holy Land had been re-captured by Muslims. Meanwhile, the idea of devotion to the Passion of Jesus was becoming more and more popular in Europe (McBrien, 1995). The seeds were thus planted for physical representations of the Stations of the Cross.
The Franciscans are credited with the first promotion of a devotion to the Stations in the 14th century (McBrien, 1995). Originally done only outdoors, the Stations were allowed inside churches in the mid-18th century. Eventually fixed at the number fourteen, the Stations of the Cross became a familiar feature in all Catholic churches.
My Childhood and Young Adulthood Experiences
As a young child during the mid-1960s, I remember that our family went to our parish church for services on Good Friday afternoon. It was all very dramatic for a four-year-old boy. I couldn’t imagine how much it must have hurt when Jesus had nails driven into his hands and feet!
As a Catholic grade-school student during the early to mid-1970s, I remember being marched from the school building to the same church. Once a week, on the Fridays of Lent, we prayed the Stations of the Cross using Everyman’s Way of the Cross (Clarence Enzier, Ave Maria, Notre Dame, 1970). The Station I remember best is the Sixth Station: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus. The accompanying picture was of a run-down house, with a baby carriage on the porch. It reminded me of a similar house in my hometown.
I went to a public high school, but I remember praying the Stations of the Cross sometimes in Religious Education. Of course, by that time, my friends and I felt as if we had “outgrown” this way of praying. One friend and I knelt when we were supposed to stand, and stood when we were supposed to kneel. We thought we were hilarious!
The Stations of the Cross didn’t play any part in my faith life while in college, nor in my young professional life. When I entered St. Meinrad Seminary in 1985 at the age of 24, that began to change. I was “re-introduced” to the Stations of the Cross, and soon I began to understand them not just as something that happened to Jesus, but as something that should be happening to us as disciples of Jesus.
I was ordained a Catholic priest in June 1991. Sadly, my inconsistent practice of praying the Stations of the Cross became limited to leading them during the Fridays of Lent. What happened? In the midst of lots of “details” (including my being diagnosed with MS — multiple sclerosis — just before my ordination), the Stations became, in essence, “one more thing to do.” Sad; but happily, praying the Stations of the Cross now occupies a place near the heart of my prayer life.
My More Recent, Middle-Adulthood Experience
When I began praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the seminary, I was basically reading words on a page. Now, the words are familiar to me, they pour forth from me, and they have become my meager but heart-felt contribution to the prayer of the Church.
A similar dynamic is at work, now, as I pray the Stations of the Cross. Usually I don’t have to think about the words I pray, but I can focus on the agony of Jesus. And I remember what I discovered in the seminary: it’s not just about the sacrifice of Jesus. It’s about my sacrifice, your sacrifice and the Good News that death is never the end of the story!
In order for this positive change to have occurred, I first had to find a copy of the Stations of the Cross that fit — one that expressed what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I found some Stations that I liked, then edited them to make them more relevant to my life. I added some graphics that I found online, laminated the pages and put them in a liturgical binder. I now use this binder as the basis for my almost-daily praying of the Stations of the Cross.
The most important part of the above process was finding a copy of the Stations of the Cross that was personally meaningful. There are lots of options, from the more traditional (e.g, those written by St. Alphonsus Liguori) to the more contemporary (e.g., those directed at the issue of social justice). One must search, and — and keep on searching — in books, in journals and online. You may, instead, want to create your own; I highly recommend this option. A priest–friend, for example, is a recovering alcoholic. As I did, he found that the process of creating his own Stations was very prayerful.
In addition to finding the “right” words to pray, one must find the “right” Stations of the Cross with which to pray. We have some beautiful outdoor Stations at the Little Sisters of the Poor home where I live. In inclement weather, I use the Stations in our chapel. Since most parish churches, also, have their own depictions of Jesus’ journey to Calvary, these are a logical option for use in private prayer. Any depictions that speak of “sacrifice” seem appropriate. Even the use of a single crucifix — illustrating the temporary end of Christ’s journey — can be powerful.
There is also the issue of making time to pray the Stations of the Cross. In the lives of busy priests, it isn’t likely that an ideal time will simply emerge. So, what is the best time to sacrifice 30-40 minutes to remember Jesus’ sacrifice? In the morning, setting the tone for the rest of the day? After lunch? After dinner? At bedtime, as an examination of conscience?
Beyond the Details
I’ve got to be honest: the Stations of the Cross used to seem irrelevant to me. Even when I knew the ideal that they challenged me to connect my suffering with Jesus’ suffering, the Stations were for me essentially what happened to Jesus; I really hadn’t suffered (or so I thought). Certainly, I was thankful for His sacrifice, and I eventually recognized it not so much as an end but as a beginning. Still, it wasn’t until I made praying the Stations a priority in my own priestly prayer life that I truly connected Jesus’ suffering with my own suffering.
You see, now I know what suffering is. I mentioned earlier that I was diagnosed with MS shortly before my priestly ordination. Nineteen years later, I use a wheelchair, have lost many of my physical abilities, and live in a nursing home. I can more poignantly relate to Jesus’ suffering, but there’s something more.
As my journey of living as a person with MS has nearly paralleled my journey of living as a Catholic priest (I was diagnosed in March 1991, and ordained in June 1991), I have come to realize something important: my priesthood isn’t so much about “do-ing,” but about “be-ing.” I don’t always like it, I don’t always understand it, I don’t always agree with it. I believe, however, that God is calling me to trust that He’s got it all figured out.
I simply have to get out of the way — sacrifice myself, the way that Jesus sacrificed himself. It’s a very humbling experience, one that I believe all priests can benefit from. It is, after all, the essence of dying to oneself.
To a great extent, I “wear” my suffering on the outside. I have found that people generally assume that my life is harder than their own. However, my experiences as a counselor and as a spiritual director have taught me that, contrary to what I believed about myself in the seminary, all people suffer. This is true even when things appear fine “on the outside.”
In the end, it’s not very helpful to compare levels of suffering. Because we all suffer, in whatever way, we priests owe it to ourselves and to the people we serve to name our suffering; then, we must reflect theologically on it. Regularly praying the Stations of the Cross can enhance this process. Our bond to Jesus will be strengthened, and so will our bond to His suffering people.
By the grace of God, your life and your priesthood — like mine — will become more centered. TP
Father Weigman, a priest of the Diocese of Toledo, is chaplain of the Sacred Heart Home in Oregon, Ohio.