The Stations of the Cross in the form most American Catholics know best are of comparatively recent vintage in Church terms, dating back to the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified. However, their history goes back well before that, to the days when pilgrims were first openly able to go to Jerusalem and walk in the footsteps of Jesus on Good Friday.


The emperor Constantine permitted Christians to legally worship in the Roman Empire in 313 after 250 years of persecution. In 335, he erected the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the site where Jesus’ tomb was believed to have been.


Processions of pilgrims to the church, especially during Holy Week, began soon after its completion.


A woman named Egeria, a pilgrim from France, described one such pilgrimage which took place in the fourth century. The bishop of Jerusalem and about 200 pilgrims began "at the first cockcrow" at the site of Jesus’ agony on Holy Thursday night. They said a prayer, sung a hymn, and heard a Gospel passage, then went to the garden of Gethsemane and repeated the procedure.


They continued to Jerusalem itself, "reaching the (city) gate about the time when one man begins to recognize another, and thence right on through the midst of the city. All, to a man, both great and small, rich and poor, all are ready there, for on that special day not a soul withdraws from the vigils until morning," Egeria wrote.

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Pilgrimages eventually took a fixed route from the ruins of the Fortress Antonia, where Pilate had his judgment hall, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That route through Jerusalem’s Old City gained acceptance as the way Jesus went to his death and remains unchanged today. It is known as the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the "Sorrowful Way."


Stops developed on the way to note specific events on the road to Calvary. In many cases, the pilgrims could only guess where some incidents took place because Jerusalem had been almost completely destroyed by Roman armies in 70 A.D.


The pilgrims brought back oil from the lamps that burned around Jesus’ tomb and relics from the holy places, and sometimes tried to recreate in Europe what they had seen in the Holy Land. The Moslem conquest of Palestine in the seventh century made such shrines more significant, since it made travel to the Holy Land dangerous.


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Devotions to the Way of the Cross began in earnest after 1342, when the Franciscan friars were given custody of the holy sites in the Holy Land. The Franciscans have been closely identified with the devotion ever since; for years, Church regulations required a set of the stations to be blessed by a Franciscan when possible.


The number of stations varied widely, with some manuals of devotion listing as many as 37. The term "stations" in describing the Way of the Cross was first used in the narrative of an English pilgrim, William Wey, who visited the Holy Land twice in the 15th century.


Depictions of the events described in the Stations did not start becoming common in churches until Pope Innocent XI permitted the Franciscans in 1686 to erect such displays in all their churches. He also declared that all indulgences given for visiting the sacred sites in the Holy Land would apply to any Franciscan or Franciscan lay affiliate visiting a set of stations in a church.


Pope Benedict XIII extended that privilege to all the faithful in 1726. Five years later, Pope Clement XII allowed all churches to have stations and fixed the number at 14, where it has been ever since. In recent years, many churches have included the Resurrection as a 15th station. Benedict XIV specifically urged every church in 1742 to enrich its sanctuary with stations.


Two Franciscans of the era did much to spread the popes’ wishes. St. Leonard of Port-Maurice erected stations at more than 500 churches in Italy, and St. Alphonsus Ligouri in 1787 wrote the version of the Stations that most Americans recognize because it was used in most churches in the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.


It has become standard for Catholic churches in this country to recite the prayers related to the Stations on the Fridays of Lent. Many churches have two services, one in the afternoon, mainly for schoolchildren, and one in the evening. Some Protestant churches, especially those belonging to the Episcopal or Lutheran denominations, have made the devotion part of their Lenten activities, particularly on Good Friday.


The traditional 14 stations are as follows: Jesus is condemned to death; Jesus takes up his cross; Jesus falls the first time; Jesus meets his mother; Simon of Cyrene carries the cross; Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; Jesus falls the second time; Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem; Jesus falls the third time; Jesus is stripped of his garments; Jesus is nailed to the cross; Jesus is crucified; Jesus is taken down from the cross; Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb.


The third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and ninth stations are not specifically described in the Gospels, nor is St. Alphonsus’ depiction in the 13th station of Jesus’ body being laid in the arms of his mother.


In order to provide a version more specifically aligned with biblical accounts, Pope John Paul II introduced the Scriptural Way of the Cross on Good Friday in 1991 and celebrated that form every year thereafter at the Colosseum in Rome. Pope Benedict approved it for meditation and public celebration in 2007.


This version has the following stations: Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane; Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested; Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin; Jesus is denied by Peter; Jesus is judged by Pilate; Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns; Jesus takes up his cross; Simon helps Jesus carry his cross; Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem; Jesus is crucified; Jesus promises a place in his kingdom to the good thief; Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other; Jesus dies on the cross; Jesus is laid in the tomb.


Franciscans have a long tradition of celebrating the Stations in the Colosseum on Fridays. John Paul made the observance an annual part of his Holy Week calendar on Good Friday. He carried a cross himself from station to station until age and infirmity limited his strength. Days before his death in 2005, he observed the Stations from his private chapel in the Vatican.


Pope Benedict XVI has continued the tradition. Each year, a different person is invited to write the meditation text for the pope’s Stations. Past composers of the papal Stations include several non-Catholics. John Paul wrote the text himself in 2000 and used the traditional stations.


Thirteen specially constructed biblical stations were erected around the city of Sydney, Australia, this past July 27 for an observance of the Stations at World Youth Day. They started with the Last Supper at St. Mary’s Cathedral and the agony in the garden at Domain Park and ended in Darling Harbor, where the sunset provided a dramatic backdrop for three crosses erected at the site.


More than 2 million people took part, with 500 million more watching worldwide on television. This may have been the largest gathering ever for the devotion.


Printed with permission from The Catholic Times.