The Way of the Cross - 16th March 2014

Q. Could you please explain the similarities/differences between the Stations of the Cross and the Way of the Cross that Pope John Paul II introduced in the early 1990s?

A. Stations of the Cross is a popular practice in many parishes during Lent. For many it is a spiritual journey with Jesus that allows them to express the subjective dimension of their faith.

This form of devotion arose after pilgrims began to visit the Holy Land from the end of the 4th century to follow the path that Jesus trod in his last week of life. On Palm Sunday they walked down from the summit of the Mount of Olives, singing psalms and antiphons. On Thursday people processed to Gethsemane where the Lord prayed. On Friday they gathered at Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion, to venerate the Wood of the Cross.

Christians who heard these stories but were unable to travel to Palestine themselves reproduced a parallel devotion at home. The first recorded “Stations of the Cross” was at the Church of San Stefano in Bologna in the 5th century. The Franciscans popularised the practice during the Middle Ages, but the number and subject of the stations was not settled until the 18th century when Pope Clement XII officially recognised the Stations of the Cross as a noble devotion for the Church. The fourteen stations that were established were a blend of biblical and legendary material.

There is no “set” way of praying the Stations and the Church has never provided an official ritual for the celebration. Some parishes base their ritual almost entirely on scripture; others include little if any passages from the bible.

In 1975 the Congregation for Sacred Rites suggested a list of Stations of the Cross that is more in keeping with the gospel accounts than the traditional form. It begins with the Last Supper and concludes with Christ’s resurrection.

As your question indicates, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI used another set of Stations that differs from the traditional 14 when celebrating the Way of Cross at the Colosseum during Holy Week. It also omits those events that are not attested to in the biblical account of the Passion.

The terms “Stations of the Cross” and “Way of the Cross” refer to the same devotional practice. The latter may be better as it emphasises the spiritual journey aspect of the prayer.

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2002 makes a number of useful suggestions for celebrating the Way of the Cross. These include:

* Alternative forms of the Stations approved by Rome or used by the popes “can be regarded as genuine forms of the devotion and may be used as the occasion might warrant”.

* The choice of texts should take account of the wise pastoral principle of integrating renewal and continuity. It is always preferable to choose texts written in a clear simple style.

* The celebration could end with a commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection “to leave the faithful with a sense of expectation of the resurrection in faith and hope”.

* Integrating hymns, silence, procession and reflective pauses in a balanced manner into the ritual “contributes significantly to obtaining the spiritual fruits of the pious exercise”.


Elizabeth Harrington