The following originally appeared in the NCCB’s Committee on the Liturgy NEWSLETTER, Volume XXVII, November/December, 1991.
During the past year many inquiries have been received at the Secretariat for the Liturgy regarding the devotion known as the “Stations (or Way) of the Cross.” These questions arose partly from news stories that indicated that Pope John Paul II used a new form of the stations of the cross containing only stations which are found in the New Testament at the annual Good Friday celebration at the Coliseum in Rome.
In the first centuries Christians who went to Jerusalem visited the sites of the various events recorded by the Scriptures and ancient tradition. This practice is recounted in the letter of the fourth century pilgrim Egeria. However, it is not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when emphasis on the passion of Christ became popular, that we see the beginnings of the stations of the cross as a devotion. The modern devotion with fourteen stations is first seen in Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century and was spread by the Franciscans. Saint Leonard of Port Maurice (d.1751) erected stations of the cross in the Roman Coliseum. Pope Clement XII formally established the devotion in 1731.
Chapter 42 of the Book of Blessings provides the Order for the Blessing of the Stations of the Cross and indicates that the erection and blessing of the stations of the cross is done by the rector (pastor) of the church or a priest deputed by him (no. 1400). The stations consist of fourteen images with crosses or simply crosses that are set up in the church or in a place of their own, and in a manner convenient to the faithful (Book of Blessings, no. 1401).
From 1979 to 1990 a variety of versions of the stations of the cross have been used for the papal Good Friday celebration of this devotion at the Coliseum. They have always included the fourteen traditional stations: Jesus is condemned to death; Jesus takes up the cross; Jesus falls the first time; Jesus meets his mother; Simon carries the cross for Jesus; Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; Jesus falls the second time; Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem; Jesus falls the third time; Jesus is stripped of his clothing; Jesus is nailed to the cross; Jesus dies on the cross; Jesus is taken down from the cross; Jesus is placed in the tomb.
The 1991 celebration of the stations of the cross at the Coliseum provided a new list of the stations which are all based on the events recorded in the passion accounts of the New Testament. The three falls of Jesus (stations III, V, VII) and the encounters of Jesus with his mother (station IV) and Veronica (station VI), all of which are not found in the Scriptures, have been replaced by scriptural stations: Jesus in the Garden of Olives; Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his arrest; denial of Jesus by Peter; Jesus is judged by Pilate; Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns; Jesus promises his kingdom to the good thief, the mother of Jesus and his disciple at the cross.
These revised stations are actually not new, since many of them were given in the 1991 Book for Pilgrims which was prepared for the Holy Year of 1991. This revised version of the stations of the cross continues the tradition of fourteen stations. In many places an additional station has been added, either before the altar of the blessed sacrament to commemorate the resurrection, and so situate the stations of the cross in the context of the whole paschal mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.
In recent years the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has authorized various versions of the stations of the cross for use on different occasions as alternatives to the traditional forms. The 1991 papal version of the stations of the cross falls within the practice of allowing a variety of texts for use in this devotion. Monsignor Piero Marini, Master of Liturgical Celebrations of the Pope, in the introduction to the 1991 booklet containing the Good Friday stations of the cross, notes that the new version does not intend to change the traditional text, which still remains valid. In practice, this means that the number of stations remain the same and the traditional designation of the individual stations has not been changed.