The devotion as the Stations (or Way) of the Cross was one of many forms of devotion developed during the very late Middle Ages, generally the 1200’s or 1300’s. Politically, culturally and religiously those were tumultuous and painful times for the vast majority of ordinary people, particularly Christians. Practicing and passing on faith was enormously difficult.
During the time of the crusades (1095-1270), it became popular for pilgrims to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus to Calvary. In the next two centuries, after the Moslems recaptured the Holy Land, pilgrimages were too dangerous. A substitute pilgrimage, the Stations of the Cross, became a popular outdoor devotion throughout Europe during this time. In the mid-18th century, the Stations of the Cross were allowed inside churches, particularly Catholic churches.
Among others, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic and their followers, helped popularize such expressions of faith and prayer as the Christmas crèche (Saint Francis) and the rosary (Dominicans), and the Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross served both as prayer and a sort of catechism about the sufferings of the Lord. Various Franciscan communities, who already held responsibility for the holy places in Jerusalem for Latin Rite Catholics, helped popularize the devotion.
The Stations of the Cross once included seven falls under the cross. Another form was a total of 43 separate stations. But the 14 stations as known today became fairly stabilized by Pope Clement XII in 1731. Yet, most publications of the Stations of the Cross have included a 15th station, or meditation, calling to mind Christ’s victory over death in the resurrection.
In one of the most familiar and cherished forms of the Stations of the Cross, we find this invitation to prayer:
“We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.”
To which the people reply:
“Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
In this brief invitatory and response, Saint Alphonsus Liguori captures the essence of the article of the creed that proclaims Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” There is much more to this statement of faith than the simple recognition that Christ died. If by his cross Christ had not redeemed us, his death would have little meaning. With the eyes of faith, the apostles and all the believers after them gaze on the cross and see much more than just the instrument on which Jesus hung until he died.
Despite the Stations of the Cross being primarily a Catholic tradition, many non-Catholic churches are integrating the devotion into their religious practices. Originally, Protestantism did not continue with many devotional traditions such as the Stations of the Cross. Several Reformed churches mistrusted the use of pictures or other images in worship and prayer. The known theology of the time was that the Stations of the Cross have always included incidents which come out of Christian tradition but are not found in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the Stations of the Cross remain one of the richest ways in Christian tradition to meditate in reflective prayer on the Lord’s suffering on the way and eventual death at Calvary.
Catholic churches worldwide, generally hold this devotional practice every Friday evening during Lent, up to and including Good Friday. Saint Rita’s Catholic Church, Show Low, offers the Stations of the Cross at 7:15PM each Friday during this holy, liturgical season.
Dietzen, Rev. John, M.A., S.T.L. “Catholic Q & A: All You Want to Know About Catholicism.” New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2009.
Dues, Greg. “Catholic Customs & Traditions.” Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.
Wuerl, Donald W., Bishop. “The Catholic Way.” New York: Doubleday, 2001.