Carl Schafer OFM


            The Way of the Cross, “Via Crucis” in Latin, commemorates the way that Jesus trod in Jerusalem, from the court of Pontius Pilate to the hill of Golgotha that was then just outside the city walls. It is also called “The Sorrowful Way”, or “Via Dolorosa”.


            The Stations of the Cross, as we know them today, are fourteen stops along the Way of the Cross that are clearly marked in the streets of Jerusalem. The last ones are enclosed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The fourteen stations erected in most Catholic churches throughout the world are those commemorated since the Seventeenth Century in Jerusalem.


            When we go into the history of the origins of the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem, we cannot say that an eyewitness who followed Jesus from Pilate’s palace to Calvary would state that all the events commemorated by the fourteen stations actually took place on the spots marked in the streets of Jerusalem. We are not dealing with that kind of historical veracity. The Way of the Cross is based mainly on the gospel accounts and on local traditions in Jerusalem, but it has been greatly influenced by the prayerful meditation of spiritual giants as well as of ordinary faithful Christians in Europe.


            Christians in Jerusalem and from elsewhere venerated the places of Jesus’ death and resurrection from the earliest times, especially after the Edict of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the year 313. A pilgrim from Bordeaux in 333, and the Spanish lady Etheria later in that century, both described the ways in which Christians venerated the places made holy by the suffering and death of Jesus, especially Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre of his burial and resurrection.


            But in the first ten centuries, there was no question of venerating the Way of the Cross as we know it, either in Jerusalem or anywhere else. Our Way of the Cross evolved slowly out of veneration of the holy places in Jerusalem and from various forms of devotion to the Passion of Jesus in Europe which pilgrims carried over to Jerusalem.


            From the Eleventh Century, Christians in Europe venerated the suffering and death of Jesus and accepted their own sufferings as Jesus had accepted his. Great saints and mystics, such as St Bernard of Clairvaux, promoted this devotion. Some of the Stations originate from their meditations on the Passion, for example: Jesus meets his mother, and Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. St Francis of Assisi carried the wounds of Jesus in his own body and the Franciscans promoted everywhere the veneration of the suffering of Jesus.


            Christian pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, while the Crusaders made the place safe enough for pilgrimages. There is mention in 1228 of the way trodden by Jesus on his way to Calvary. The Franciscans were installed in Jerusalem and in other holy places in 1333.


       In the 1400s, the friars made visits to the Holy Places connected with the suffering and death of Jesus. They were similar to our Stations of the Cross. They had evolved from the places venerated by Christians from the earliest times. So the Franciscans venerated many of the spots commemorated in our present Way of the Cross, but in reverse order, from Calvary to Pilate’s palace.


           Three of the present Stations derive directly from a widespread European veneration of seven or more falls of Jesus under his cross on the way to Calvary. These falls are not mentioned in the gospels but are the product of prayerful and compassionate meditation on the Saviour’s sufferings.


            There was also a popular devotion in Europe to sorrowful processions during which the faithful moved from one church to another, sometimes to nine churches, and meditated on the painful progress of Jesus carrying his cross, uniting their own sufferings to his.


            While the veneration of the falls of Jesus and the devotion of sorrowful processions were popular in Europe, yet another practice developed, namely, veneration of the stops that Jesus made on his way to Calvary. These stations commenced in some places with Jesus saying farewell to his mother, in other places they began with the Last Supper, or in the Garden of Gethsemane, or at the palace of Pilate.


            The Way of the Cross as we have it is therefore the product of a long evolution of popular piety in Europe over a period of a thousand years, and transported to Jerusalem by European pilgrims. In the Seventeenth Century, the Franciscans adapted their visits to the Holy Places connected with the suffering and death of Jesus to the European Way of the Cross. And so we arrive at our present-day Way of the Cross.


Local Stations of the Cross


            Many of the faithful in every country had a great desire to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but relatively few could make it. Since the end of the Fifteenth Century, “spiritual pilgrimages” to Jerusalem became popular and people at home were assured that they enjoyed the same spiritual advantages as those who actually reached Jerusalem.


            Since the Seventeenth Century, the fourteen Stations of the Cross as we know them had been reproduced in Franciscan churches throughout Spain, from where it spread through Sardinia, then through Italy. Early in the Eighteenth Century, it spread to churches outside the Franciscan Order, largely due to the preaching of the Franciscan friar St Leonard of Port Maurice, who died in 1751, a year after he had erected the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum in Rome, at the request of Benedict XIV.


            Today, the Stations of the Cross have been erected in practically every Catholic church throughout the world. They have been erected also in the open air in many sanctuaries, as  at “Maryfields”, Campbelltown NSW, and at Lochinvar NSW.


The Scriptural Way of the Cross


            In 1975, Pope John Paul II introduced a Way of the Cross that is based totally on the gospel accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus. He replaced those Stations that had developed in Europe out of prayerful meditation without a scriptural basis, namely, the three falls of Jesus under his cross, Jesus meets his mother, and Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.


            The Scriptural Way of the Cross begins with the Last Supper, and proceeds to the Garden of Gethsemane, then to Jesus before the Sanhedrin. After Jesus is buried, it adds Jesus rises from the dead.


           This set of Stations is more appropriate for ecumenical services, where all Christians join in making the Way of the Cross, since we all share the same gospel accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus. The Pope gave only the titles of the Stations, with no set gospel texts or prayers.


            The Scriptural Way of the Cross compares with the traditional Way of the Cross as follows:


Scriptural Way of the Cross                                      Jerusalem Way of the Cross


The Last Supper

The Garden of Gethsemane

Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Jesus before Pilate                                                        Jesus before Pilate

Jesus is whipped and crowned with thorns

Jesus carries the cross                                                   Jesus carries the cross

                                                                                    Jesus falls the first time

                                                                                    Jesus meets his mother

Jesus is helped by the Cyrenean                                    Jesus is helped by the Cyrenean

                                                                                    Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

                                                                                    Jesus falls the second time

Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem                       Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem

                                                                                    Jesus falls the third time

Jesus is stripped                                                           Jesus is stripped

            and nailed to the cross                                      Jesus is nailed to the cross

Jesus and the good thief

Jesus speaks to Mary and John

Jesus dies on the cross                                                  Jesus dies on the cross

                                                                                    Jesus is taken down from the cross

Jesus is buried                                                              Jesus is buried

Jesus rises from the dead


How do we make the Way of the Cross?


            We begin by recollecting our minds and situating ourselves in the gospel scene of Jesus at the Last Supper (if we are following the Scriptural Way of the Cross) or of Jesus before Pilate. We stand in front of the representation of the scene. We recall that Jesus the Risen Lord is present among us and accompanies us while we remember his last hours before his death.


            We read or listen to a relevant passage from the gospel or other sacred Scripture. We speak to Jesus by joining others in a common prayer, and by praying silently.


            We process from station to station, singing appropriate hymns, or in silent reflection. We are moved to compassion for Jesus and for all who suffer, to admiration of his forgiving his enemies, to compunction for our poor following of him, to imitation of his patience, to thanksgiving for what he did for us, to hope and trust in his power to save us, to love for God who gave him to us as our brother and Saviour.




  1. Michel-Jean Picard, “Croix (Chemin de)”, Dictionnaire de Spiritualité Ascétique et Mystique, Doctrine et Histoire. Beauchesne, Paris, 1953. Tome II Deuxième Partie, pp. 2575-2606.


  1. B. Brown, “Way of the Cross”, New Catholic Encyclopedia. McGraw-Hill, 1966. Vol. 14, pp. 832-835.