Marie Rutledge interviewed Carl Schafer OFM on Macarthur Radio


1. What exactly is the Way of the Cross, and what are the Stations of the Cross?


            The Way of the Cross commemorates the way that Jesus trod in Jerusalem, from the Garden of Gethsemane or from the court of Pontius Pilate, to the hill of Golgotha, which was then just outside the city walls.


            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 five are enclosed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


            Our Way of the Cross evolved slowly out of a combination of veneration of the holy places in Jerusalem and various forms of devotion to the Passion of Jesus in Europe that pilgrims carried over to Jerusalem.


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


            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.


            Yet another practice developed in Europe, and that was 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.


            So, the Way of the Cross as we have it is 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.


2. How accurate historically are the fourteen stations in Jerusalem?


            We can’t say that an eyewitness who followed Jesus from Pilate’s palace to Calvary would witness to the fact 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 also on local traditions in Jerusalem, but it has been greatly influenced by the prayerful meditation of men and women saints, as well as of ordinary faithful Christians in Europe. We notice that the most touching, most compassionate Stations often derive from the piety of Christian people over a long period of time. These are the three falls of Jesus, Jesus meets his mother, and Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. These five incidents are not scriptural.


            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, France, 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.


3. Have you seen Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”? (Yes.) Is that an accurate presentation of the Way of the Cross?


            It’s an accurate presentation of the traditional Way of the Cross, which includes the incidents that are not scriptural, that is, the falls under the weight of the cross, Jesus meets his mother, and a woman wipes his face. The movie is based on the gospel accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus, but the gospels have little to say about the violence of his scourging and crucifixion, which were nonetheless horrific. Mel has added other dramatic effects which are neither scriptural nor traditional. But the movie’s essential message is the same as that of the gospels. It’s the good news of God’s love for us all, expressed in the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus, God’s Son. Like the scriptures, Mel concluded his presentation of the Passion of the Christ with his resurrection.


4. What would a strictly scriptural Way of the Cross look like?


            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.


            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 is similar to the traditional Way of the Cross, except that there are three stations before “Jesus before Pilate”. They are: “The Last Supper”, “The Garden of Gethsemane”, and, “Jesus before the Sanhedrin”.  “Jesus is whipped and crowned with thorns” comes before “Jesus carries the cross”. There is no first, second or third fall in the Scriptural Way of the Cross, or Jesus meeting his mother or Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. “Jesus and the good thief” and “Jesus speaks to Mary and John” precede “Jesus dies on the cross”. Most important of all, after “Jesus is buried”, is added “Jesus rises from the dead”.


5. Why is it that Catholic churches have the Stations of the Cross erected on the inside walls?


            Many Christians 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. The practice 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. In the previous year, he had erected the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum in Rome, at the request of Pope 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 many sanctuaries in the open air, as at “Maryfields”.


6. Franciscans seem to have a special interest in the Way of the Cross. Why is that?


            St Francis of Assisi’s life spanned the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, from 1182 till 1226. He carried the wounds of Jesus visibly in his own body and the Franciscans promoted everywhere the veneration of the suffering of Jesus, which had already been practised since the Eleventh Century.


            Christian pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, while the Crusaders made the place safe enough for pilgrims. 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.


            In the Seventeenth Century, the Franciscans in Jerusalem 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.


7. You have the Way of the Cross set up in the grounds of Maryfields, on Narellan Road. Can you tell us something about them?


            The plan of the Stations at “Maryfields” came from two groups: one a group of Catholic laymen; the other, the Franciscan friars at “Maryfields”.


            The laymen wanted to create a sense of religious pilgrimage outside the city area of Sydney, near enough to the city to make the Stations accessible to people of limited means, and in a location that would harmonize with the solemnity of the occasion.


            At the same time, the friars were seeking a way to counterbalance the tendency in Australian society, to secularize Holy Week.


            The first Way of the Cross was organized for Good Friday, 1936. From that year till 1988, the friars hosted the Stations of the Cross every Good Friday.


            Crowds of over 10,000 and up to 37,000 came regularly to attend the Stations of the Cross.  Gradually the numbers dwindled owing to several factors:  (1) the convenient train service to Maryfields ended in 1963 with the building of the new Narellan Road; (2) finding sufficient space for the hundred of cars proved a problem; and (3) in 1983, the Franciscan novitiate moved to Victoria, which meant that the burden of preparing the grounds for the Stations of the Cross and cleaning up after the event, fell on the few friars who remained.  After 1989, the Stations were no longer held on Good Friday.


            In 1999, “Maryfields” Stations of the Cross were listed as part of the Heritage of Campbelltown.


            In 2000, the friars of “Maryfields” decided to hold the Stations of the Cross at 3 p.m. on the Sundays of Lent, and on Palm Sunday, but at 9 a.m. on Good Friday to avoid conflicting with the church ceremonies that are held in every Catholic church at 3.00 p.m. on Good Friday.


            Groups, including Hispanics, Italians, Croatians, Filipinos, Koreans and Tongans, make the Way of the Cross at other times in their own language.


            We hold the Stations also on the Sunday closest to 2 November, when we remember our deceased friars and nuns, relatives and friends.


8. How would you guide us to pray as we make the Way of the Cross?


            If we are following the Scriptural Way of the Cross, we begin by recollecting our minds and situating ourselves in the gospel scene of Jesus at the Last Supper 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. We admire his forgiving his enemies. We feel compunction for our poor following of him. We want to imitate his patience, and we thank him for what he did for us. We hope and trust in his power to save us. Above all, we ask for the grace to love God, who gave Jesus to us as our brother and Saviour.