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Stations of the Cross

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What are the origins of the Stations of the Cross? When were they first placed in churches?

The Stations of the Cross, also known as the Way of the Cross and the Via Crucis, is a Christian devotional practice that commemorates the events of Good Friday, specifically Jesus’ journey from His condemnation to His Crucifixion and burial. Its origins date back to Christianity’s early years when pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem to retrace the steps of Jesus’ Passion and Death.


As the fourth century emperor Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, commemorated significant locations in Jesus’ life, Christians began walking the path that, according to tradition, was Jesus’ last journey. These pilgrims paused to pray at key sites of His Passion.

While the route shifted slightly over time, the spots Christians marked corresponded to many events from Jesus’ ascent to Calvary: Jesus being condemned, accepting the Cross, receiving Simon of Cyrene’s help in carrying His Cross, meeting the women of Jerusalem, being stripped of His clothes, breathing His last and being laid in the tomb. Other details from the tradition were added over time, including Jesus falling three times, Jesus meeting His mother and Veronica wiping His face. The number of stations eventually totaled 14.


Not all Christians had the means to journey to the Holy Land, so churches replicated the Passion sites. The practice of praying the stations spread throughout the Catholic Church during the medieval and early modern periods, prompting various versions and artistic representations to appear in churches.

The Franciscan Order played a significant role in promoting the Stations of the Cross as a devotional practice. Popes entrusted them with the care of the sacred places in the Holy Land, and the Franciscans’ efforts contributed to the devotion’s popularity, not just in the Holy Land but throughout the Catholic world.

The stations were more formalized by the 18th century, with Pope Clement XII and Pope Clement XIV helping to popularize the devotion by granting an indulgence to those who prayed them.

While practices varied over time and place, each station was usually accompanied by a particular meditation or explanation to consider, as well as an “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” “Glory Be” and the words, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world!”


The Passion’s stages are often depicted in artwork, sculpture and images displayed along church walls or in outdoor devotional spaces. Praying the stations is particularly associated with the season of Lent and Fridays throughout the year. Many parishes host communal praying of the stations during Lent, but individuals can pray the devotion privately, whether in a church or not.

The prayers and meditations associated with the stations are now quite diverse. Some are scripturally focused, and others are thematic meditations tailored to specific groups, such as the terminally ill, youth, workers and prisoners.

While prayers to accompany the stations are often found in booklet form, their availability on the internet and phone apps indicate that this devotion continues to resonate with Christians and offers an opportunity to unite with Jesus in His passion and death.

Father David Endres is professor of Church history and historical theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the July 2024 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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