During the fourth century, when Jerusalem saw a sudden boom in Christian pilgrims, there were two sites all the visitors wanted to see -- Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher. This profound desire to pray at the place where Christ was crucified and died and the tomb in which he was buried and from which he rose from the dead is how the devotion we know as the Stations of the Cross began.
The Stations of the Cross is a Catholic devotion that is both active and contemplative: It's active because whoever is making the stations walks from scene to scene; it is contemplative because the purpose of the devotion is to meditate on the sufferings Our Lord endured to redeem the world.
Meditating on Passion
By the 15th century, pilgrims to Jerusalem followed a set route through the streets of the Holy City, stopping at the spot, for example, where Christ encountered his sorrowful mother and where the Roman soldiers dragooned Simon of Cyrene into helping Jesus carry the cross. The route became known as the Via Dolorosa, Latin for "the Way of Sorrows," and sometimes as the Via Crucis, "the Way of the Cross."
Following in the footsteps of Christ proved to be an emotionally and spiritually powerful experience for many of these pilgrims, something they made a point of describing to their families and friends when they returned home. Soon, Catholics who could not make the long, expensive pilgrimage to Jerusalem but wanted some share in the experience of the Via Dolorosa began to urge their parish priests to erect little shrines outside the local church in imitation of the Stations in Jerusalem.
Some religious communities adopted the new devotion and set up Stations in their cloisters. Erecting Stations on a hillside, where the devout would have to exert a little more effort to follow in the steps of Christ, became popular. But it was not until the end of the 16th century that the Stations began to move inside the churches. To encourage Catholics to meditate on the Passion, popes in the 17th and 18th century granted indulgences to anyone who followed the Way of the Cross.
Walking and meditating is still all that was required to make the Stations of the Cross (although invalids and the disabled are dispensed from the requirement to walk from station to station).
Over the centuries priests, nuns and laypeople have recommended prayers and hymns for the devotion, and published meditation guides to help individuals keep their mind focused on the sufferings of Christ; if you own a meditation guide for the Stations, it is most likely the one written by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) -- his is the most common.
The hymn most often sung during Stations of the Cross is "At the Cross Her Station Keeping," a translation of Stabat Mater, the 14th sequence, or hymn, written for the Feast of our Lady of Sorrows. The prayer most often recited at the stations is, "We adore thee O Christ and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world." By tradition this prayer is recited at each station.
The prayers and hymns and suggested meditations are lovely and undoubtedly enhance the experience of making the Stations, but they are not necessary. All one needs to do is keep moving from Station and to Station and keep your mind fixed on Christ's passion.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Cardlinks series.