Walking the Way to the Way of the Cross
The Way of the Cross is one of the oldest and most beautiful devotions of our Catholic Faith. How did it begin, and why do we still practice this ancient custom today?
The Way of the Cross, also called the Stations of the Cross or the Latin Via Crucis or Via Dolorosa, is a familiar Lenten observance for many Catholics. When walking between and meditating at each of the fourteen stations, the faithful make a spiritual journey to Jerusalem and commemorate the experiences of Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary. The term stations is credited to an English pilgrim named William Wey, who visited Jerusalem in the fifteenth century. At that time, visits to the various places of Christ’s passion were more like a walking tour, commonly commencing on Calvary and ending back at Pilate’s house. Wey called each of the sacred places along the way a “station,” which comes from the Latin word statio, meaning to “stand still.”
According to the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (published in 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship), this devotion is actually “a synthesis of various devotions that have arisen since the high middle ages.” The Stations as we know them today are a composite of many different commemorations of the stages of the walk to Calvary and are drawn from both Scripture and Tradition. Just as the Way of the Cross retraces Christ’s steps, let’s retrace the steps the Way itself has taken in its development over time.
The Way of the Cross finds its origin early on in the growth of the Church. Legend holds that after the Ascension of Jesus, Christians visited the sites in Jerusalem where he’d spent his last days, stopping at the places sanctified by his sorrow and blood. During the first, second, and third centuries, however, fear of Roman persecution kept large numbers of Christians away from these sacred locations.