The Stations of the Cross have their origins in the Christian practice of pilgrimages. As was common custom, many Christians wished to visit the places where Jesus Christ walked upon the earth, but few Christians had the opportunity to visit these places themselves. The medieval church in the 12th and 13th centuries experienced an increased devotion to the humanity of Jesus, especially his Passion. These two factors, coupled with the return of veteran soldiers from the crusades, bringing back stories and descriptions of the Holy Land, enchanted the imaginations of pious Catholics who wished to experience the live of Christ on earth.
The Franciscans used their influence as custodians of the Holy Land, beginning in 1342, to promote devotion to the Passion. By the 15th century, commemorating the events of Christ’s Passion with shrines was commonplace. These would be called the Stations of the Cross or the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrows.” The current route, from the Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the last five stations in the church, has been established since the 18th century.
In the eighteenth century, St. Leonard of Port Maurice became known as the “preacher of the Way of the Cross,” for he erected more than 572 stations between 1731 and 1751.
The number and title of the stations varied widely throughout history. There is witness to 5 “stops” in Bologna, 7 in Antwerp. Sometimes there were as many as 20, 30, or even more. The number 14 first appeared in the 16th century in the Low Countries – based on devotional preference rather than practice in Jerusalem itself.
In 1731 Pope Clement XII set the number of stations at 14, which was probably simply a recognition of common devotional practice. But this apparently was not considered mandatory, for 11 stations were ordered for the Diocese of Vienne in 1799.
Sometimes today a 15th station for the Resurrection is added.
On Good Friday in 1991, John Paul II prayed “Scriptural Stations of the Cross,” which are an alternative to the “traditional” stations.
Featured image: Jesus in the Tomb by Frank Kacmarcik.