The Way of the Cross: Not only for Lent

The Way of the Cross is one of the most personal, meditative and graphic of any Catholic devotion. We spiritually join Jesus on the via dolorosa (sorrowful way) leading to the place of the skull, suffering with him as he struggles to carry the cross on that first Good Friday. The crack of the Roman’s whip, the jeers of the mob, the sobs of his followers, fill our ears. We see him fall, see the executioner strip his clothes, nail him to the cross and raise him to die. After witnessing his torture and pain, all that he willingly endured for our salvation, we pledge never again to cause him such agony.

“I love you my beloved Jesus; I love you more than myself; I repent with my whole heart for having offended you. Never permit me to separate myself from you again. Grant that I may love you always; and do with me what you will” (St. Alphonsus Liguori, “The Way of the Cross”). Those words of St. Alphonsus Liguori echo in our hearts, calling us to follow our Master, to walk, to pray the Way of the Cross again and again.

Present year-round

Widely called “The Stations” and popular during Lent, this beautiful devotion is not limited by a season or single day like Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday or Good Friday.

The 14 stations are not removed from the church walls at the end of Lent or Easter; they remain as a constant reminder of his total sacrifice, a sacrifice from which we never distance ourselves.

Frequently and piously walking with him, contemplating his suffering and sharing our crosses, especially when we feel abandoned or in despair, gives us courage and hope. Throughout the year, especially on Friday afternoons, we often find Catholics humbly praying the stations. This perfect prayer conforms us to the one crucified. Isaiah wrote, “the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all” (53:6).

A beautiful Catholic book, “From Our Church, Her Children and Institutions” suggests graces that the Stations of the Cross bring: “You feel no devotion to the passion of Christ? Make the stations. You feel no contrition for your sins? Make the stations. You are getting lukewarm and sluggish? Make the stations. You cannot pray or meditate? Make the stations. You have no relish for mortification? Make the stations” (Vol 1, Henry Coyle, Theodore Mayhew, Frank S. Hickey, Angel Guardian Press, Boston, 1908).

Indulgence granted for praying the stations

The Church offers us a plenary indulgence when we walk the Way of the Cross. We can make this walk alone or, in crowded conditions, remain in our pew while someone else publicly leads the devotion.

A cross at each station is required, and most churches include a picture or tableaux to assist our meditation. It is necessary to be in a state of grace, have the intention of gaining the indulgence and performing the devotion while moving between, pausing and meditating on Our Lord’s passion and death at each station.

Additionally one must go to confession, be free from all sin including venial sin, receive holy Communion and pray for the intentions of the pope — all on or near the day of the devotion.

Catholics unable to participate in walking the Way of the Cross may receive an indulgence if they spend a minimum of 30 minutes praying and meditating on Christ’s passion.

Visiting the sites of Christ’s passion

According to legend, the first person after Jesus to visit the sites of Christ’s passion was the Blessed Mother. Of course others wanted to go to those holy places, but the Romans were still occupying Jerusalem and persecuting anyone who was a follower of Jesus.

For centuries, access to the holy sites was limited because non-Christians were frequently in control of the city. Even if security was not an issue, many living outside Palestine couldn’t make a long, arduous journey to get to the Holy Land.

During the 11th century, the crusaders returned Jerusalem back to the Christians, and churches, shrines and other memorials began to appear reflecting the route Christ took to Calvary. Whether or not this route was exactly where Jesus was forced to carry his cross is uncertain, as the city was destroyed in 70 A.D.

By the Middle Ages, pilgrims mostly were doing a walking tour of the holy sites that often started on Calvary and went back to Pilate’s home, where Christ’s sentencing took place. Around 1458, an Englishman named William Wey is alleged to have walked his pilgrimage to Calvary beginning at Pilate’s residence and made stops, offered prayers and meditations at the different shrines and memorials along the way. He dubbed the stops as halting places or stations; thus the name, Stations of the Cross.

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Christians who couldn’t visit Jerusalem began locally to erect replicas of the holy sites based on information from people who had been to the city, such as the crusaders. Initially there was no continuity or standardization among these structures; some included as many as 37 stops, others as few as seven. Finally, in 1731, Pope Clement XII established the number of stations as 14.

In 1991, Pope St. John Paul II introduced a version of this devotion based entirely on the Scriptures. All 14 stations and the accompanying meditations can be found in the Bible. The Scriptural Stations are an alternative to the traditional Way of the Cross.

‘Stabat Mater’

No discussion of the Way of the Cross is complete without some comment on the Stabat Mater (Latin for “the standing mother”), the hymn sung in between each of the stations.

When singing the mournful verses, we experience the heartbreak of Mary as she watches her innocent Son go to his death. Widely acclaimed, there are at least 60 translations of this hymn, which contains 20 verses. A 13th-century Franciscan named Jocopone da Toddy often is credited with writing this song.

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

Traditional Stations of the Cross
Permanently affixed, the 14 stations adorn parishes around the world. They are visible reminders of the last hours of Christ on earth, but, moreover, the Way of the Cross is symbolic of our lifelong journey filled with difficulties and marked with personal crosses. Unlike the followers of Christ on that Good Friday, we know that the 14th station is not the end, that death does not win; rather, in his sacrifice, we find the sure knowledge of eternal life.