Q: I am familiar with the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross but now have seen some churches with different Stations. Are they approved by the Church?
Let me begin by explaining the origin of this popular devotion. It goes back to the early centuries in Jerusalem, where Christian pilgrims would retrace the route taken by Jesus when he carried his cross to Mount Calvary, or Golgotha. These early pilgrimages varied considerably, with different starting places and different routes.
In the medieval period, as the practice became more developed, the pilgrimage would usually start at the ruins of the Antonia Fortress, built by Herod to guard the Temple, where Pontius Pilate judged Jesus. It would conclude at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Golgotha and the burial place of Jesus.
By the 16th century this route came to be called the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow. At certain places, or stations, along the way, the pilgrims would stop to recall specific events narrated or implied in the Gospel accounts.
From around the 15th century, stations were erected in various places in Europe and became known as the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross. Since the middle of the 17th century, there have been 14 stations, beginning with Jesus condemned to death by Pilate, and concluding with his being laid in the tomb.
According to the Vatican Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, the Way of the Cross in its present form was widely promoted by St Leonardo da Porto Maurizio, who died in 1751. It was approved by the Holy See and indulgences were granted for those who practised it. (cf. DPPL, 132)
As regards the spiritual meaning of the devotion, the Directory adds: “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. Lk 9:23; DPPL, 133).”
Since six of the traditional stations are not expressly mentioned in Scripture – Jesus’ three falls, his meeting with Mary and with Veronica, and his being laid in the arms of his mother – in recent times the stations have been rearranged so that they correspond more closely to the Gospel accounts. In this way, moreover, the devotion can have more appeal to other Christians.
These are often referred to as the Scriptural Stations of the Cross. Are they approved by the Holy See?
The Directory on Popular Piety says the following: “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.
“Alternative forms of the Via Crucis have been approved by the Apostolic See or publicly used by the Roman Pontiff: these can be regarded as genuine forms of the devotion and may be used as occasion might warrant.” (DPPL, 134)
For example, the Vatican’s Central Committee for the Holy Year 1975 approved different stations, which were included in the Libro del Pellegrino, Pilgrims’ Book, issued on that occasion.
Likewise, Pope John Paul II presided over the Scriptural Stations at the Coliseum on Good Friday 1991, and in the subsequent years of his pontificate.
These stations were: 1. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; 2. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested; 3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin; 4. Jesus is denied by St Peter; 5. Jesus is judged by Pontius Pilate; 6. Jesus is scourged at the pillar and crowned with thorns; 7. Jesus bears the Cross; 8. Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry the Cross; 9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; 10. Jesus is crucified; 11. Jesus promises his kingdom to the good thief; 12. Jesus speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple; 13. Jesus dies on the Cross; 14. Jesus is placed in the tomb.
As is clear, even though the traditional stations are preferred, these new stations are perfectly acceptable, at least for occasional use.