When entering a Catholic Church, it is pretty easy to spot the evidence of Catholics’ favorite devotions: a red candle next to the tabernacle, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and fourteen pictures or statues depicting the events of Jesus Christ’s Passion along the walls. These fourteen stops comprise a beloved tradition within the Church that allow anyone to make a “spiritual pilgrimage” to follow Jesus along his way to Calvary.
What is the Origin of the Stations?
The Stations of the Cross, also known as The Way of the Cross, is a devotional practice that many Catholics pray throughout the entire liturgical year but especially during Lent. The roots of this practice go back to the early Church. Tradition holds that Mary, Jesus’s mother, walked the path Jesus took during his Passion every day. As Christianity spread, many pilgrims began to imitate Mary by visiting the various holy sites of Jesus’ Passion. As centuries passed, it became increasingly difficult for most Christians to physically make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land due to the distance as well as political and financial reasons. What we now know as the Stations of the Cross slowly developed as a way to make a “spiritual pilgrimage” to follow the path of Jesus on his way to Calvary. The number and names of each station changed over time, and in 1731 Pope Clement XII settled the total number of stations at fourteen. Not long after in 1742, Pope Benedict XIV encouraged the devotional practice by exhorting all churches to install a set of stations with which the faithful could meditate on the Lord’s Passion.
How Do You Pray Them?
The stations that Catholics typically meditate upon today begin with Jesus being condemned to death by Pilate and end with his body being laid in the tomb. Although no specific words or prayers are required for making the Way of the Cross, St. Alphonsus Ligouri (1696-1787) wrote a set of meditations and prayers for each station that has become the outline for what we typically see when the Stations are prayed today. The visit to each station begins by reciting the words, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world,” while genuflecting. Next follows a short reflection on that particular event within the Lord’s Passion followed by praying an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. Frequently a verse of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, a hymn describing Mary’s sorrow and grief during Jesus’ Passion, is sung on the journey to the next station.
Why Should We Pray Them?
The Catholic Church encourages the faithful to pray the Stations of the Cross as a means of growing in love and gratitude for Jesus Christ. The various reflections and prayers that have been written for the Way of the Cross often focus on the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain Jesus endured during his Passion. Visualizing the details of Our Lord’s suffering either through the descriptions in the reflections, the artwork of the station pieces, or through our individual imaginations brings to life the stark reality of Jesus’ crucifixion. This devotion provides a space for meditating on the magnitude of Christ’s suffering during his Passion—the suffering he freely underwent to atone for our sins and to grant us eternal salvation. Acknowledging and understanding all that Jesus went through in order to restore our relationship with the Father allows for a deepening of our affection and love for him.
As disciples of Jesus, meditating on his Passion through the Stations of the Cross teaches us how to approach the crosses present in our own lives. In Luke 9:23 Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” There is no better way to learn how to carry our individual crosses than by prayerfully contemplating the manner in which Jesus carried his cross. The “spiritual pilgrimage” of praying through the Way of the Cross allows us to walk alongside Christ during his Passion. We are able to notice his struggle underneath the cross along with his determination through his three falls. We see the love and patience with which he interacts with others, both those who are supporting him (Simon, Mary, Veronica, and the women of Jerusalem) and those who are inflicting pain upon him (Pontius Pilate, the soldiers, and those gathered to watch his execution). Christ’s Passion is the ultimate example of the radical gift of self and surrender to God’s will that every disciple is called to in their own lives. In his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II writes: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” Praying through the Stations of the Cross offers us the opportunity to unite our own sufferings to Jesus’ Passion and to ask the Holy Spirit to give us the grace, strength, and courage to endure our sufferings like Jesus did.
This Lent, I encourage you to prioritize praying with the Stations of the Cross. Many different reflections for the stations can be found online or at Catholic bookstores. You can practice this devotion on your own, with family or friends, or with your parish community. As you pray, ask Jesus to open your heart to a deeper love for him and for his help and grace as you faithfully take up your own cross and follow him each day. Our Lord, who suffered greatly out of love for you, will surely delight in answering your prayer.
Bethany Dhingra is a millennial with a missionary heart. She loves using her Catholic Studies and Communications degrees from the University of St. Thomas to draw others into a relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. She served as a campus missionary with FOCUS for 3 years. Most recently, Bethany is living in Missouri with her husband and learning how to follow Christ through the sacrament of marriage.