Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Way of the Cross

by Winfrid Herbst, S.D.S.


This article examines the popular devotion of making the Way of the Cross, the three reasons for doing so, its origin, its effects, the indulgences attached, as well as some guidelines for erecting the Stations of the Cross.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


236 – 241

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, December 1963

There are three good reasons for making the Way of the Cross. These are mentioned in a beautiful prayer which the priest recites when he blesses the newly erected stations.

He prays that those images and representations of the sacred Passion of Jesus Christ, the well-beloved Son of God, may serve as a salutary remedy for the human race. In particular, he pleads in the name of the Church that they may serve to strengthen the faith, to advance the Christian in the performance of good works, and to be to him a source of spiritual consolation and a mighty protection in his struggles with the enemy of man's salvation.

So, one makes the Way of the Cross, first of all, that one's faith may be strengthened. The saints grew strong in faith through meditation on Christ's bitter Passion. When a Christian meditates on the Passion of Christ, the light of faith grows brighter for him. He enters more deeply into God's plans of redemption and sanctification. He understands, in a way not easy to describe, why St. Paul and all the saints since his time do not want to know anything else but "only Jesus Christ and Him crucified." Devoutly and attentively studying the sufferings of the Savior, we learn to understand and joyfully to embrace what the world calls "the foolishness of the Cross." And it is especially during this saving practice that we understand better than ever the love of God for us. We realize that he who is not inflamed with the love of God when contemplating Jesus dead upon the Cross will never love at all.

The Other Two Reasons

In the second place we make the Way of the Cross in order to advance in the way of perfection. As we go from station to station, we see the Savior before us, giving us an example, drawing us on the powerful "Follow Me." In this respect the Way of the Cross is a real school of virtue for us. There we are taught, not by words alone but by compelling example, to be meek and humble of heart; to deny ourselves and gladly take up any crosses the good God may send us; to be patient and gentle in the midst of affliction; to be merciful to others as the Savior has been merciful to us; to do and dare all things in active cooperation for the salvation of the souls for which the Savior suffered and died.

In the third place, the Way of the Cross is a consolation to us in our sufferings and a protection against the assaults of temptation. We all know what it means to suffer. Every state of life brings with it its own particular sufferings, trials, hardships, misunderstandings, and what not. There are physical sufferings, mental sufferings, and a combination of both. Then there are the sufferings of calumny and persecution, petty or otherwise. But who has suffered as much as Jesus? When we contemplate Him in the Way of the Cross, our sufferings seem much easier to us. When we meditate sympathetically on His Passion, He looks upon us with tender love, consoles us, strengthens us to carry our cross bravely to the end. "No cross, no crown," He seems to whisper. "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of heaven."

And what a bulwark is the Way of the Cross against temptation! When we are inclined to be proud, we look upon the thorn-crowned head of the Savior. We see His body frightfully, sadly disfigured — "a worm and no man." It is enough to keep us humble. In temptations of the flesh we gaze upon His sacred body, stripped of its garments, bruised and cut and torn at the pillar to atone for impure sins. What an incentive to purity! When we would be intemperate, we hear the heart-rending cry, "I thirst," fall from His blue, cracked, parched lips. When feelings of anger, impatience, revenge seek to overwhelm us, we seem to hear the Savior's prayer in His greatest agony, a prayer for His bitterest enemies: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what it is that they are doing." And so with the rest.

It is for these reasons that we make the Way of the Cross. God showers His graces upon us. As a bounteous addition He likewise enriches us with precious indulgences for ourselves or for the poor souls. Of these I shall speak later. But it is not merely for them that we follow in the bloodstained footsteps of the Divine Savior as He bears His cross up to Calvary's heights. Rather for the reasons already mentioned.

Origin of the Way of the Cross

Probably no one acquainted with the Way of the Cross would ever ask: "Who made the Way of the Cross first?" Our Lord did, of course, when He carried His heavy cross from Pilate's praetorium to Calvary. That is why all lovers of Jesus find deep spiritual content in making the stations. Their origin is holy.

But who made the Way of the Cross first after Jesus? Tradition tells us that Our Lady did. Already on Holy Saturday she walked that dolorous way which her Son had walked the day before, thinking sadly of all that had taken place. Later on, there can be no doubt, she as well as the disciples and the holy women often walked that way in recollection and prayer and visited the scenes of the Savior's sufferings. The early Christians did the same.

Indeed, in such vast numbers did the first Christians come to the Way of the Cross at Jerusalem that the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) built a pagan temple on Mt. Calvary in order to keep the pious pilgrims away. But when St. Helena (325) found the true Cross of Christ on Calvary and built a Christian church on the spot where the pagan temple had stood, there was such a mighty concourse of people to the holy places that Jerusalem became the greatest place of pilgrimage in the world. St. Jerome (340-420) speaks of crowds of pilgrims who come from all countries to visit the holy places in his day.

Later on, the Holy Land fell into the hands of the infidel Turks. Hence, the original Way of the Cross could be made only with great difficulty and danger. The Franciscans, to whom the guardianship of the holy places was entrusted in 1342, gradually introduced the devotion of the stations in Europe, whence it spread all over the world. It is now universal and one of the most popular of Catholic devotions.

As is well known, each of the fourteen stations represents a certain scene in the Passion of Christ. One goes from station to station, meditating on the incident represented by each, or on the Passion in general, as one would go from place to place in Jerusalem. No particular prayers are ordered. Where many are making the stations and only those who conduct the devotion move from one station to another, the faithful can still gain the indulgences without moving along.


The Way of the Cross, so holy in its origin, is likewise holy in its effects. Meditation on the Passion of Christ is a practice that is most helpful to us in our trials and tribulations and one that brings down upon the soul God's choicest graces. And the stations are the best form of such meditation; for the representations before us carry our thoughts back to Jerusalem. The scenes of the Passion become visible to the eye of the mind. In spirit we undertake that pilgrimage which we cannot otherwise make to and through Jerusalem and the holy places there. Surely, there is no better book of mediations on the Passion than just the stations. And they are a book which even the most illiterate can read.

The Way of the Cross, holy in its origin and holy in its effects, is likewise an easy form of prayer. It should be made with a heart that is full of sorrow for sin, mindful of the words: "I am the cause of Thy way" of the Cross. Again, we should vividly place before ourselves the Passion as represented by the different stations, or one or the other aspect of our Savior's sufferings, and in spirit transport ourselves to Jerusalem. And we should make the stations devoutly, not carelessly and mechanically. We must endeavor to feel for the suffering Jesus, to compassionate Him. When we cannot remain long at each station, we should make our prayers and meditation all the more intense and try to remain longer at one or the other, especially at that one where Jesus suffers particularly for our pet sin. Thus abundant spiritual graces can be obtained through a right use of the stations. They enable us more literally to obey Christ's injunction to take up our cross and follow Him.

Indulgences of the Way of the Cross

Formerly it was neither permissible nor possible to give the number of indulgences attached to this pious practice because certain authentic documents had perished. But the matter has now been clarified. By a decree of Oct. 2, 1931, of the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary (Office of Indulgences), the Sovereign Pontiff, exercising his supreme authority, abrogated each and every indulgence granted up to that day for the pious practice of the Way of the Cross and replaced them by the following concessions:

The faithful who, individually or in group, and at least with contrite heart, perform, according to the instructions laid down by the Holy See, the Way of the Cross, provided it has been lawfully erected, may gain: (a) one plenary indulgence each time; (b) another plenary indulgence if they have received Communion on the very day on which they make the Way of the Cross, or if they have received It in the month after performing the exercise ten times; (c) a partial indulgence of ten years for each station, if, after having begun the Way of the Cross, they are, for some reason, unable to continue to the end.

The matter is now quite clear. But to some difficulties that have been brought up, the following solutions may be given:

1. It is certain that those who repeat this devotion on one and the same day gain the plenary indulgence mentioned in the first section (a) each time.

2. To gain the plenary indulgence mentioned in the second section (b), as also the one mentioned in section (a), neither a special visit to a church nor a special prayer according to the intention of the pope is required.

3. One who for a reasonable cause does not complete the devotion gains the partial indulgence for every station made; but one who interrupts the Way of the Cross, but later continues and completes it, need not begin the stations afresh to gain the plenary indulgence, but may continue where interrupted, provided the break was for only a short time, e.g., to hear Mass, receive Communion, go to confession. This because of a former decision which still holds good.

Way of the Cross Crucifix

Those who have the special faculty can enrich crucifixes with the indulgences of the Way of the Cross (one plenary indulgence each time; another plenary indulgence if one has received Holy Communion on the very day on which one makes the Way of the Cross). With such a crucifix these indulgences can be gained by the sick, by those at sea, those in prison, those in heathen lands, and by all others who are legitimately prevented (who cannot for some reason easily go to church, who have not time to go during the week, etc. — a moral impossibility suffices) from visiting the stations of the Way of the Cross, provided that with at least a contrite and devout heart they hold the crucifix and recite twenty times the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory (all three). One thus says one Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory for each of the fourteen stations, five in honor of the five wounds, and one for the pope's intentions. If one member of the family, for instance, holds such a crucifix and the others join in the prayers, all (if they are legitimately prevented, as explained above, and any good reason suffices) can gain the indulgences. One should think of the Passion while saying these prayers.

If one for some good reason cannot say all the twenty Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glorys prescribed, he will gain, instead of the plenary indulgence, a partial indulgence of ten years for each Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory he recites.

In virtue of a confession of March 25, 1931, in favor of those who are so sick that they cannot recite the twenty Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glorys without grave inconvenience or difficulty, those thus sick can gain the indulgences of the Way of the Cross if they kiss or even gaze upon a crucifix enriched with the blessing of the stations and which is offered to them by a priest or other person, provided they add a prayer or short ejaculation in honor of the Passion and death of Christ, for instance, "We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee, because by Thy holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world."

This new decree allows even greater relaxation of the latter condition. The indulgences of the Way of the Cross may be gained by those who are so weak that they cannot recite even an ejaculatory prayer, provided they kiss, or at least gaze upon, a crucifix with the blessing of the Way of the Cross — a thing to remember when assisting the sick and the dying. (Cf. Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, 194.)

When the Indulgences Remain

Fourteen crosses (not crucifixes) of wood are necessary for the stations. To these alone the indulgences are attached. The pictures or representations are not necessary for the gaining of the indulgences; but they are customary and very helpful in meditating on the Passion and hence should not be dispensed without except for serious reasons. The crosses may be on the picture (the frame) or on the wall. It is perhaps better to put them above the pictures. (Cf. Beringer, Vol I, ed. 1922.)

Once the Way of the Cross has been duly erected, the indulgences remain:

1. If the tablets are removed and new ones put in their place, or if no others are put in their place and the crosses alone remain; for it is to these only that the indulgences are attached.

2. If a minor part of the crosses is renewed. Therefore, if at least one-half (7) of the blessed crosses are destroyed, or are at the same time, not successively, renewed, the indulgences are lost.

3. If one or the other or more, but less than half, of the crosses are removed from the wall, the indulgences remain. But if all are removed at the same time temporarily, or half of them, the faithful cannot during that time gain the indulgences in another place in which they are hung up. But they can gain the indulgences when they are returned to their former place.

4. If the crosses are changed from one place to another in the same church or chapel, the indulgences are not lost.

So, if all the stations in the church or chapel are taken down, for instance when the interior is being decorated, and piled up in an adjoining room and afterwards hung up again in the same church or chapel, even if in a different order, beginning on the opposite side, for example, the indulgences are not lost. They will not have to be blessed anew.

A new erection of the Way of the Cross is necessary when the stations have been removed from the place where they were canonically erected and permanently transferred to another place. If, however, the crosses are to be renewed in the same place, it suffices that they be blessed by a priest having the requisite faculty, provided he can presume the consent of those whom it concerns. (Cf. Cappello, De Sacramentis, Vol II, p. 851, ed. 1938.)

Manner of Making the Stations

Corporal movement from station to station is always required for the private making of the Way of the Cross, in order to gain the indulgences.

Since corporal movement from station to station is required, it would not do to take in two or more stations while standing in the same spot. One must move from one to the other, if only a few inches, which is about all one can move when the stations are close together in a tiny chapel. Nothing has been specified as regards the distance between the stations.

If one were in the balcony of a chapel because of illness, as so often happens in convents, etc., corporal movement would be had even if one moved at an angle from station to station.

It is not necessary to see the stations. One may make the stations even in the dark, since, for the gaining of the indulgence, all that is required is corporal movement from station to station and meditation on the Passion, even if brief, even if on the Passion in general, though it is better to make it on the mystery of the respective station.

When praying the stations in public, it suffices if the priest and the servers move from station to station. Then the people, while remaining in their places, stand and kneel at each station, or stand and at least genuflect. It is not necessary that they turn toward each station or look at it.

If the prayers for the stations are said in common and privately, as, for instance, when several persons make the Way of the Cross together in a convent or a boarding school, and in close quarters, it is sufficient if the one leading the prayers, whether a lay person or a religious, moves from station to station.

Finally, it should be remarked that when one performs a good work, like the Way of the Cross, one ought always to have the intention of performing it also and chiefly for its own sake and not merely to gain the indulgences attached to it; for the slightest increase of merit (and good works performed in the state of grace merit an eternal reward) is worth incomparably more than a speedy deliverance from purgatory. But, thanks be to God, we can do both the one and the other in making the salutary Way of the Cross.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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