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.
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.
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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.