A Tradition Arising from the Heart of Love
Have you ever found yourself at the grave of a loved one? Have you ever visited a place where some significant event in the life of you or a loved one occurred? Have you ever gone back to see a place from your past meaningful to you? Perhaps the place your father took you to fish or play ball when you were a child. Or the church you were married in. The field on which a big game was won or lost. The small town you traveled to for Christmas every year when Grandma was alive. Or the front steps of the fraternity where your college sweetheart either broke your heart or took your ring and said “Yes”.
Or have you ever visited a place special to you for what occurred there in not just your personal history but the history of your family or community or nation? A war monument? The birth home of a Civil Rights leader? The place where Kennedy was assassinated?
Have you ever just stood or sat or knelt at such a place and felt in an inexplicable way the weight of that past moment, the presence of a person, or the meaning of an event reverberating through time?
If so, you understand the origins of the Stations of the Cross.
Tradition holds that Mary the Mother of Jesus and the early disciples on a regular basis retraced the path of Jesus on his Passion. It seems likely—something almost anyone who loved Jesus and knew the significance of his Passion would want to do.
Likewise, as the years passed and the original believers were followed by generations of Christians, it seems almost certain they too would want to visit the places made sacred by the blood of Jesus, to take off their sandals, and to stand or kneel on that holy ground.
For many years, for fear of persecution, they would have needed to do so discreetly and secretively.
After Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 312 A.D., some of the places along the way of the cross were marked out and reverenced more openly. St. Jerome, who lived from 342 to 420 A.D., verified that people came from all over to follow the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem.
In the fifth century, the Way of the Cross became popular even outside of the Holy Land. The holy places were recreated in different places for those who could not travel to Jerusalem. At this time there was not a set number of Stations or events included.
Saints Bernard, Francis and Bonaventure
Key saints contributed to the continued development and popularization of the Stations.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) had a great devotion to the crucified Christ. He composed a long prayer/meditation to the wounds of Christ, including not only the hands and feet, but also the knees, face, chest, etc. Once in prayer, St. Bernard asked Christ which of his wounds was most painful. Our Lord told him it was the wound on his shoulder that bore the cross. St. Bernard wrote a "Prayer to the Shoulder Wound of Christ". It concludes, "...lead me on to heaven along the Way of Thy Cross."
In an article ("The Way of the Cross") on the Vatican web site, the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff credits St. Bernard (d. 1153), St. Francis (d. 1226) and the Franciscan St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), with the devotion to Christ crucified that "prepared the ground on which the devout practice (of the Stations) was to develop."
In 1342, the Franciscans were given control of the shrines of the Holy Land. They played a big part in popularizing the Way of the Cross. Pilgrims poured into Jerusalem.
But in the late 1500s the Turks took control of the Holy Land. They didn’t allow Christians to visit and forbade people from walking or reverencing the holy places. As a result, reproductions of the holy places continued to multiply in Europe and became more and more popular.
St. Leonard of Port Maurice
St. Leonard of Port Maurice, Italy, (1676-1751), a powerful preacher similar to the present day’s Bishop Robert Barron, preached the Stations and is said to have put up nearly 600 sets of stations at churches throughout Italy.
In 1731, Pope Clement XII fixed the number of Stations, which until then had varied from place to place and time to time, at fourteen.
Then, in 1742, Pope Benedict XIV, collaborating with St. Leonard, encouraged all priests to adorn their churches with the Stations of the Cross. He himself began the tradition of praying the Stations at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday.
St. Pope John Paul II
St. Pope Paul VI revived the Colosseum tradition in 1964, and St. Pope John Paul II made the Colosseum Stations of the Cross an event broadcast around the world.
For many years, St. John Paul II carried the cross himself for the Colosseum stations. When age and illness prevented him from doing so, he presided from a distance. Just days before he died, Pope John Paul observed the Stations of the Cross from his private chapel.
The Stations were a devotion dear to him. It is reported that he meditated on the Stations every day. What a model for us!