History and Practice of the way of the cross

(Via Crucis)

The fourteen black and white watercolors which appear on this website, painted by Sister Catherine Bourgeois, are part of a long tradition amongst Christians; a means with which to meditate on the Passion of Jesus Christ.

For many centuries, pilgrims to Jerusalem have desired to follow in the steps of their Savior on his sorrowful journey from Pilate's palace, to Golgotha, and the Holy Sepulcher.

In the fifteenth century, the Franciscans, guardians of the Holy places of Jerusalem, introduced representations of Christ's Passion into the churches of Europe. Christians were thereby enabled to embark on a so-called "Way of the Cross," as if they had been side by side with Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem, pausing at each "station" for meditation, and prayer.

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the number of such stations became fixed at fourteen, and it was held by a church as an honor to posess such a set of stations.

In the eighteenth century Saint Louis-Marie de Montfort, with the help of five hundred peasants, built a huge reproduction of Calvary, at Pont-Chateau, in France. It was, however, the great Italian missionary, Saint Leonard of Port-Maurice who propogated this practice of the Stations of the Cross during the first part of the same century. He himself was known to have personally blessed 572 such "Ways of the Cross." He erected a monumental set of fifteen stations, (the final station being dedicated to the Sorrows of Our Lady), in the Coliseum in Rome. On Good Friday, at the Coliseum, the Holy Father himself still presides over a solemn Way of the Cross, attracting thousands of the faithful.

The awe-inspiring work of Saint Leonard is not the only such shrine to the Passion that captures the imagination of the pious pilgrim.

One thinks of that at Lourdes, standing on the hill which surveys the grotto. It consists of 115 individual statues, each of which is almost two meters high, and attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year.

The Stations of the Cross are also a part of life in the parish. Saint Leonard recommended the practice to bishops, and priests: "I beseech you in the name of Jesus Christ to open to the faithful this treasure, wherein they will find the means of conversion, an unfailing source of benefits, of blessings, and of graces from heaven. If God is harsh with respect to the servant who hid his only talent in the field, how will he act with those who keep hidden from his people innumerable talents of priceless value."

The Church's profound consciousness of this treasure is manifested by the indulgences granted to those amongst the faithful who draw from its source of grace.

During Lent, the priest guides the parish community from station to station along the walls of the church, using passages from Sacred Scripture, meditations, and hymns. In olden times, the eleventh verse from the Stabat Mater, an ancient hymn to the Blessed Virgin, was chanted after each station.

Sancta Mater istud agas
Crucifixi fige plagas
Cordi meo valide

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord,

Even as they follow the Way of the Cross, and thus meditate on the Passion of Good Friday, Christians know from the words of Saint Paul that two days later they will hear the bells of Easter Sunday. "But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him…" Rm 6, 8)

One can, of course, "make the Stations of the Cross" individually, as a private meditation; walking slowly between the stations in the church, or even meditating on the events depicted in one's own home, without the visual aids.

Pope John Paul II made a private Way of the Cross in such a way every friday, even after many exhausting hours of ministering to his flock.

Such are the actions of the soul who willingly consecrates a part of his day to this holy practice; the Spirit carries him into the heart of the suffering Savior, by means of the painted, or sculpted image; by means also of the passages from the Holy Gospels. These are the aids to meditation, to prayer, and ultimately to grace.

The great number of martyrs put to death during the periods of iconoclasm on account of their veneration of such holy images, is testament to the importance of these icons, and statues depicting the Incarnate Word in his blessed Passion.

Saint Paul would tell the church at Philippi:

"Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form
he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
Philippi, ch.2

The Stations of the Cross merit the talents of a faithful Christian, inspired by her beliefs.

Sister Catherine, in her turn, follows the example of Bellini, in signing her paintings thus:

"On fire with the love of the Cross."