One of the highlights of our archdiocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land this Lent is a visit to the Via Dolorosa, a street in two parts, within the old city of Jerusalem. This is the place where Jesus walked while carrying his cross on the way to Calvary. The present route was established back in the 18th century. Nine of the familiar Stations of the Cross are marked along the way and the remaining five Stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
There is no Catholic church with which I am familiar that does not have artistic representations of the Stations of the Cross. The Stations, as we know them, originated with pilgrimages to Jerusalem. People were eager to reproduce these images in places outside the Holy Land and the devotion of the Stations was most likely developed by the Franciscans once they were granted administration of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem back in 1342. This devotion gives Christians an opportunity to make a quasi-pilgrimage of prayer by meditating on the principal moments when Jesus was enduring his suffering and death. This devotion is especially popular during the Lenten season. In most of our parishes people have the opportunity to come together to pray the Stations on Lenten Fridays.
Not all the traditional Stations of the Cross have Scriptural foundations. Scripture makes no mention of the falls of Jesus nor of the meeting with his mother along the Via Dolorosa. Nor does Scripture record a meeting with the woman who wiped the face of Jesus or the removal of Jesus from the cross and the placement of his body in the arms of his mother, Mary. On the other hand, even though there is no particular Scriptural reference to these events, they are not at all unlikely or inappropriate.
Certainly this last stage of the journey of Jesus was very hard and painful. All four evangelists include a narration of the passion and death of Jesus in their gospels. As Jesus walks along the Via Dolorosa he comes closer to accomplishing the Father’s plan for our salvation. As was observed by the former Papal Master of Ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, “Every new suffering of Jesus is a seed of future joy for humanity, every jeer a premise of glory. Along that way of suffering Jesus’ every meeting — with friends, with enemies, with the indifferent — is a chance for one final lesson, one last look, one supreme offer of reconciliation and peace.”
During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Blessed John Paul II introduced a new form of these devotions more closely aligned with the Biblical accounts. His Scriptural Way of the Cross was introduced back on Good Friday, 1991. Pope Benedict XVI eventually approved this set of Stations for meditation and public celebration. The new Stations include the agony in the garden, the betrayal by Judas, the condemnation by the Sanhedrin, the denial by Peter, the scourging and crowning with thorns, the promise to the repentant thief, and entrusting Mary and John to each other. All of these are beautiful meditations and promote our devotional reflection upon the great gift of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Blessed Pope John Paul strongly encouraged this devotional practice in the life of Catholics. Every Good Friday he led an annual public prayer of the Station of the Cross at the Roman Colosseum. He himself carried the cross from station to station. During his final years he was not able to do this, but he would preside over the celebration from a stage on the Palatine Hill. Pope Benedict has continued that tradition. We are told that, just a few days before he died, Blessed John Paul observed the stations from his own private chapel. Over the year, different persons were invited to write the meditation text for the Stations. Even non-Catholics have been involved in providing these compositions. Back in the great jubilee year of 2000 the Pope himself wrote the text and used the traditional Stations.
Two years ago, our own Chancellor, Mary Jo Tully, published her composition of these stations, entitled The Path Toward Resurrection. She used the traditional stations and reflected in the preface that for her, as for many of us, part of the experience of growing up Catholic was participation in the Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent. She wrote, “As a child, I was remembering how the Lord gave himself for me.” She also stated that the memories of the passion enhanced her participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. She wrote her reflections with the hope that their meaning for the life of a Christian would not be relegated exclusively to the Lenten season. At the end of her book she stated that the Way of the Cross “is a continuing reminder that life is not mere pleasure, nor is it only pain and agony.”
Our archdiocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land concludes with six days in Jerusalem, the place where Christians have shown great love for all the holy places from the very beginning. Archaeological findings confirm the existence of expressions of Christian worship in the burial grounds where the tomb of Jesus is located. While in Jerusalem this month, our pilgrims and I have been looking forward to walking the Via Dolorosa and remembering, with both affection and great gratitude, the great sacrifice of Jesus for our salvation. There once again we hope to affirm our commitment as disciples in mission together, building the kingdom of God here on earth. Like Peter, we too shall weep for our sins and like the good thief, like Mary, like the disciple John, there we shall pray that your hearts and ours will be open to the gift of the Spirit, our companion and friend, on our own via dolorosa, the road to the glory of risen life.