The Beginner’s Guide to the Stations of the Cross

Wondering how to pray the stations of the cross? Here's your beginner's guide!

The small, cliffside village of Rocamadour, France has been a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages and tourists still visit just as often today. When I visited Rocamadour for a class trip when I studied abroad, I was more of a tourist than a pilgrim — I figured if I could snap a few photos, I’d be good to go.

But as our group set about the paved path that zigzags down to the village, I soon began to realize that people came here to connect with God.

Dotting the path were dioramas carved out of stone, each depicting a scene from Jesus’ suffering and death. The cradle Catholic in me recognized these images as the Stations of the Cross.

I had noticed the Stations of the Cross in churches before. I just figured these paintings were decorative, though, meant to make minimalistic spaces look less sparse. I hadn’t considered whether Catholics ever used the Stations of the Cross to meditate on Jesus’ journey to the cross. But in Rocamadour, I could imagine that pausing in front of each station would allow just that.

Here’s what I’ve since learned about the Stations of the Cross — and what I’ve come to love about this devotion.

You may have heard of it before

The Stations of the Cross, the Way of the Cross, and the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way) all refer to the same devotion. It commemorates the suffering and death of Jesus through scenes from Scripture and tradition. Together, these stations tell a narrative, starting with Pilate condemning Jesus to death and ending with Jesus being laid in the tomb.

The devotion originated in Jerusalem

According to an ancient tradition, Mary used to honor her son’s suffering and death by retracing his path to Calvary, the site of the crucifixion. Christians started marking significant stops on this route once Constantine stopped the persecution of Christianity in the fourth century. In the centuries to follow, pilgrims trekked to the Holy Land to pray at these sites.

When religious conflict prevented travel to Jerusalem during the Middle Ages, the Franciscan order began constructing outdoor shrines to commemorate the saving act of Jesus’ suffering and death throughout Europe. Pilgrims could still reflect on Christ’s journey to the cross without traveling as far.

There are 14 stations

When the Franciscans began introducing images of the stations to churches in the 17th century, versions of the devotion varied in both the number of stations and in the scenes included. For example, some versions included stops at the houses of Herod and Simon the Pharisee. So, the Church standardized the devotion, setting the number of stations at 14.

In 1991, St. Pope John Paul IIintroduced the Scriptural Stations of the Cross, which breaks from the traditional version in that all 14 stations refer to Gospel passages.

Because both the Scriptural and traditional versions are valid, choosing one over the other just comes down to preference.

It’s meant to inspire prayer

The Stations of the Cross tends to take the form of paintings or reliefs on church walls. (Check out the work of artist Norman Faucheux for a modern example.)

The visual representation of these scenes can help you imagine the events of the Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. You can even place yourself in each scene, thinking about what it would have been like to watch from the crowd as Jesus fell under the weight of the cross, for example.

It puts suffering into perspective

Reading (or listening to) a meditation on the Stations of the Cross can guide your thoughts through the devotion. You can choose from a lot of different meditations, and each shines a unique light on the crucifixion event.

For example, in 2018, Pope Francis enlisted people between the ages of 16 and 27 to write a version. Its themes include encountering others and being open to changing our hearts.

My favorite version, Everyone’s Way of the Cross, focuses on finding Christ in the mundane and taking up life’s inevitable crosses, “disappointments, tensions, setbacks, cares.” St. Josemaría Escrivá’s meditation combines this practical approach and Scripture, with an emphasis on the cross as a source of hope.

It’s not limited to one time and place

On Fridays during Lent and on Good Friday, many parishes get together to pray the Stations of the Cross. Different churches read different meditations, but booklets should be available so that everyone can follow along.

Usually, the congregation will pray the Stations from the pews, though some parishes opt for an outdoor procession. In either case, a priest, deacon, or layperson will lead the devotion, while we follow along.

You’re not limited to praying the Stations of the Cross during Lent, though. You can pray it whenever you want to reconnect with Jesus, wherever you are.

Whether on foot or from a favorite chair, you can practice this devotion to walk with Jesus through his suffering and death. Even if you’re not following an actual route, you can still make like a medieval pilgrim and take each station as a reminder to pause and reflect on God’s unshakable love for you.

Click here to download this free Stations of the Cross booklet.

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