Externals of the Catholic Church – The Stations of the Cross

In every Catholic church there are pictured representations of various events in the Passion of our Blessed Lord. These enable the faithful to accompany our Redeemer, as it were, on that sorrowful journey which began at the house of Pilate and ended at the sepulchre. The whole devotion is replete with sorrow, with penitential love towards Him who gave His life on the cross of Calvary for our salvation.

The Origin of the Stations

In the early days of the Church, when the spirit of faith was strong in the souls of Christians, no hardship was deemed too great when spiritual advantages were to be gained. Vast multitudes of pilgrims undertook the arduous journey to the Holy Land that they might visit the places that had been sanctified by our Saviour’s sufferings. Tradition had preserved a very accurate knowledge of these localities, and the devout pilgrims were accustomed to make what we now call the Way of the Cross, at the places which were the actual scenes of our Lord’s Passion.

But Jerusalem became a Mohammedan city, under the sway of the Sultans; and even when the perilous journey had been made, there was always danger from the despotic government and from the savage fanaticism of the Moslem people. The idea, therefore, occurred to several devout persons who had accomplished the pilgrimage, that it would be well to have some means of performing the same devotion in a safer way and of giving its benefits to those who were unable to make the journey to Palestine. The Blessed Alvarez, a Dominican of Cordova, in Spain, is said to have constructed several small chapels, each containing a representation of some part of our Lord’s sufferings. A similar practice was adopted about 1356 by the Franciscan Minorites, who had been permitted by the Sultan to take charge of the Sepulchre of our Blessed Lord at Jerusalem, and who erected Stations in many of their European churches, so that all the faithful who could not become pilgrims might make the journey in spirit. It was imme- diately seen that this was a most excellent devotion, well adapted to arouse in the hearts of Christians a fervent spirit of contrition and love of God; and it was, consequently, soon approved and recommended by the Holy See.

Pope Innocent XII, in 1694, reaffirming the decrees of his predecessors, declared that the indulgences granted for visiting certain places in Palestine* could be gained by all Franciscans and all affiliated to that Order, by making the Way of the Cross devoutly. Later, in 1726, Benedict XIII extended these indulgences to all the faithful. For some time afterwards the Franciscan Fathers had the sole faculty of erecting Stations in churches, but this power is now given to all bishops, and they may delegate it to their priests.

What are the Stations?

It is a common but erroneous belief that the Stations of the Cross are the pictures or reliefs or groups of statuary representing our Saviour on His journey to Calvary. These are not the Stations. They are merely aids to devotion. The Stations, to which the indulgences are attached, are the crosses, which must be of wood, and which are generally placed over the pictures. The latter are not essential, and are only used that we may more vividly realize our Saviour’s anguish and the greatness of our debt to Him.

The Stations are fourteen in number. For some hundreds of years there was a diversity of practice in this regard, the number varying from eleven to sixteen in different places; but the Church finally ruled that they must not be more nor less than fourteen.

Some of the scenes depicted in the Way of the Cross are described in the Gospels; others are transmitted to us by tradition. Thus we have no Scriptural authority for the falls of Jesus under the cross, nor for the beautiful story of Veronica. These are based on pious beliefs which have probably been handed down from the times of the Apostles.

The Stations are generally affixed to the interior walls of the church, although in Catholic countries it is not unusual to see beautiful Stations erected in the open air, in the grounds of religious institutions and also in cemeteries, where it is an edifying sight to witness the public devotion of the Way of the Cross for the benefit of the departed ones whose bodies are buried there.

The reader may have noticed that the Stations do not everywhere begin on the same side of the church. There is no fixed rule in regard to this; but they are always so arranged that our Saviour is represented as moving forward; so that the place of beginning and ending depends on the manner in which He has been depicted by the artist. Therefore in some churches you will find the first Station on the Gospel side, in others on the Epistle side of the main altar.

The Indulgences of the Stations

What are the indulgences granted to those who perform the Way of the Cross? Strange to say, we do not know. While we are assured that no other devotion is so highly indulgenced, there is considerable uncertainty as to just what indulgences we gain when we “go around the Stations.” For many other devotions we have an exact list of the indulgences; but we can only say, in regard to the Stations, that the person who devoutly performs this devotion and is in the state of grace gains the same indulgences as if he had visited the actual Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. The precise number or amount of these indulgences is not specified in any extant decree of the Church; and all that we know is that no other practice of our holy religion is so earnestly recommended or so plentifully indulgenced for us and for the souls in Purgatory.

How to Gain the Indulgences

We are not bound to read a meditation at each Station. We are not obliged to recite any prayers. Those that are customarily said, such as die Our Father, the Hail Mary, etc, are commendable and meritorious, but are not necessary. We must merely go around from the first Station to the fourteenth, stopping at each for a short time, and meditating on the Passion of our Lord in general or on the particular event which the Station represents. If we cannot go around, on account of the crowded condition of the church, or if the Stations are being performed publicly, it is sufficient merely to turn towards each Station. The two essential points of the devotion are the making of a journey, as it were, in company with our Blessed Lord from His trial to His tomb, and the meditation on His sufferings while the journey is being made.

For those who cannot go to the church, it is sometimes permitted to gain the same spiritual benefits by using an indulgenced crucifix, which is to be held in the hands while the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be to the Father are recited fourteen times, followed by the same prayers repeated six times – the last being for the intention of the Holy Father.

The Stations of the Cross must be lawfully erected that indulgences may be gained from them! The priest who blesses them must be specially delegated for that work by the bishop of the diocese. It may be well to mention, then, that pictures of the Stations, such as are found in prayer-books, or printed so as to form a sheet or chart, cannot be used for gaining these indulgences. Many of the faithful, with sincere but mistaken devotion, pay great reverence to such representations of our Lord’s sufferings, and imagine that by praying before them they are “making the Stations.” There is a specially objectionable device which has been widely sold and is proudly displayed in many Catholic homes, consisting of a series of gaudy pictures mounted on rollers so that they can be successively exposed to view; the purchaser is assured that this can be used “to make the Stations at home” – which is absolutely untrue. The Way of the Cross cannot be made except by visiting the Stations which have been lawfully erected and meditating on the Passion of our Lord.

For Ourselves and for the Souls

We see, then, how our holy Church has made it easy for us to gain great spiritual benefits, for our own soiils and for the souls in Purgatory. She does not exact from us the rigorous penances of former ages. She does not require that we shall make a long and perilous journey. She tempers her laws to the weakness of her children, and permits us to gain in a very easy manner the favors which we would obtain if, like the pious pilgrims of old, we traversed land and sea to the Holy Places where our Blessed Saviour wrought the redemption of mankind.