One of the most popular devotions associated with the season of Lent is the Via Crucis, Latin for Way of the Cross. Also known as the Stations of the Cross, this popular devotion consists in meditating upon the passion of Christ. Tracing its origins to the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), the Via Crucis is “a synthesis of various devotions that have arisen since the high Middle Ages” (Directory on Popular Piety: Principles and Guidelines (December 2001), n. 132).
“Through this pious exercise, the faithful movingly follow the final earthly journey of Christ… The love of the Christian faithful for this devotion is amply attested by the numerous Via Crucis erected in so many churches, shrines, cloisters, in the countryside, and on mountain pathways where the various stations are very evocative” (Directory on Popular Piety: Principles and Guidelines (December 2001), n. 131).
The traditional Stations of the Cross total 14 in number and are as follows:
- Jesus is condemned to death (Iesus condemnatur ad mortem).
- Jesus is made to bear the Cross (Iesus oneratur lingo crucis).
- Jesus falls the first time while carrying His Cross (Iesus procumbit primum sub onere crucis).
- Jesus meets His afflicted Mother (Iesus fit perdolenti Matri obvius).
- Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry His Cross (Iesus in baiulanda cruce a Cyrenæo adiuvantur).
- Jesus’ face is wiped by Veronica (Iesus Veronicæ sudario abstergitur).
- Jesus falls the second time while carrying His Cross (Iesus procumbit iterum sub onere crucis).
- Jesus speaks to the women (Iesus plorantes mulieres alloquitur).
- Jesus falls for the third time while carrying His Cross (Iesus procumbit tertium sub onere crucis).
- Jesus is stripped of His garments (Iesus vestibus spoliator).
- Jesus is nailed to the Cross (Iesus clavis affigitur cruci).
- Jesus dies on the Cross (Iesus moritur in cruce).
- Jesus is taken down from the Cross (Iesus deponitur de cruce).
- Jesus is placed in the sepulchre (Iesus sepulcro conditur).
Out of the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, only nine have a clear foundation in Sacred Scripture while one—the fourth station—appears out of order from the events chronicled in the Gospels. While the Blessed Virgin Mary is indeed present at the crucifixion, Sacred Scripture only mentions her after Christ is nailed to His Cross and before He dies, which would be between the eleventh and twelfth stations. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that she was able to have a chance meeting with her Son on His way to the crucifixion. Would not any mother try to reach out to her Son in such a moment?
While the Gospels also make no specific mention of Christ falling under the weight of the cross as is commemorated in the third, seventh, and ninth stations, it is extremely likely that He did stumble and fall under the weight of the Cross. Otherwise, why enlist the aid of Simon of Cyrene?
The last station with no reference in Sacred Scripture would have to be the sixth, when the face of Christ is wiped with a cloth by Veronica. The Gospels contain no mention of a woman named Veronica, nor of anyone offering Christ a cloth on which to wipe His brow. The woman popularly known as Saint Veronica may be apocryphal, as she has never been included in The Roman Martyrology, the Church’s official catalogue of saints.
Legend says that Saint Veronica was “a pious matron of Jerusalem who, during the Passion of Christ, as one of the holy women who accompanied Him to Calvary, offered Him a towel on which He left the imprint of His face”. It is said that she then went to Rome, “bringing with her this image of Christ, which was long exposed to public veneration” (Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), vol. 15).
It appears that there were more than a few of these images making the rounds, and so to distinguish the oldest and best-known image, it was called vera icon, Latin for “true image”. Vera icon soon became veronica. “By degrees, popular imagination mistook this word for the name of a person and attached thereto several legends which vary according to the country” (Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), vol. 15).
Regardless of whether there was ever a real person named Veronica, it does not stretch credulity to imagine some kind soul, moved at sight of who the prophet Isaiah called the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), stepped forward to provide some small gesture of comfort. Besides, the focus of this station of the Via Crucis is not on who did what, but rather on the face of Jesus:
“The beloved face of Jesus, that had smiled upon children and was transfigured with glory on Mount Thabor, is now, as it were, concealed by suffering. But this suffering is our purification; the sweat and the blood, which disfigure and tarnish His features, serve to cleanse us…” (Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás, The Way of the Cross, 1981).
The Directory on Popular Piety: Principles and Guidelines, promulgated in 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, says that “the traditional form of the Via Crucis, with its fourteen stations, is to be retained as the typical form of this pious exercise; from time to time, however, as the occasion warrants, one or other of the traditional stations might possibly be substituted with a reflection on some other aspects of the Gospel account of the journey to Calvary which are traditionally included in the Stations of the Cross” (n. 134).
On Good Friday of 1991, Saint John Paul the Great introduced a new form of devotion, called the Scriptural Way of the Cross, in order to provide a version of this devotion more closely aligned with the biblical accounts. He celebrated this form many times—but not exclusively—on Good Friday at the Colosseum in Rome, using the following sequence which was approved by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 for meditation and public celebration:
- Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46).
- Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:1-11).
- Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:66-71; John 18:12-14; 19-24).
- Jesus is denied by Peter three times (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27).
- Jesus is judged by Pilate (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-5, 13-25; John 18:28-40, 19:4-16).
- Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns (Matthew 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20; John 19:1-3).
- Jesus takes up His cross (John 19:17-18).
- Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry His cross (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26).
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-31).
- Jesus is crucified (Matthew 27:33-44; Mark 15:24-32; Luke 23:33-38; John 19:18-24).
- Jesus promises His kingdom to the repentant thief (Luke 23:39-43).
- Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other (John 19:25-27).
- Jesus dies on the cross (Matthew 27:45-56; Mark 15:33-41; Luke 23:44-49; John 19:28-37).
- Jesus is laid in the tomb (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42).
Whichever form is chosen, the Via Crucis is a beautiful and timeless devotion for meditating on and calling to mind the passion and death of Christ.
The Via Crucis is a journey made in the Holy Spirit, that divine fire which burned in the heart of Jesus (cf. Luke 12, 49-50) and brought him to Calvary. This is a journey well esteemed by the Church since it has retained a living memory of the words and gestures of the final earthly days of her Spouse and Lord. In the Via Crucis, various strands of Christian piety coalesce: the idea of life being a journey or pilgrimage; as a passage from earthly exile to our true home in Heaven; the deep desire to be conformed to the Passion of Christ; the demands of following Christ, which imply that his disciples must follow behind the Master, daily carrying their own crosses (cf. Luke 9:23)... (Directory on Popular Piety: Principles and Guidelines (December 2001), n. 133).
At the conclusion of the annual Via Crucis prayed in the Colosseum on Good Friday 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said:
The anguish of the Passion of the Lord Jesus cannot fail to move to pity even the most hardened hearts, as it constitutes the climax of the revelation of God’s love for each of us… Let us […] contemplate His disfigured face: it is the face of the Man of sorrows, who took upon Himself the burden of all our mortal anguish. His face is reflected in that of every person who is humiliated and offended, sick and suffering, alone, abandoned and despised. Pouring out His blood, He has rescued us from the slavery of death, He has broken the solitude of our tears, He has entered into our every grief and our every anxiety (Pope Benedict XVI, Address, 10 April 2009).