Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is there anything special about the 12th Station of the Via Crucis, such as chanting a Lenten song or saying the Divine Mercy prayer? — M.L., Jos, Nigeria
A: Since the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, is classed among forms of popular piety there are relatively few binding norms, and much is left to local custom and initiative.
The Enchiridion of Indulgences, No. 63, offers the conditions required to obtain a plenary indulgence by making the Way of the Cross:
“Making the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross. This must be done at legitimately erected stations, which require 14 crosses to which other images or statues may be added.
“The Way of the Cross usually consists of 14 sacred readings, to which some vocal prayers may be added.
“However, to fulfill the pious exercise it is enough to meditate on the Lord’s passion and death, with no need to make a particular consideration regarding each individual station. Thus, one may also meditate on episodes of the Passion that differ from the traditional 14 stations.
“It is also necessary to move from one station to the next, although, if during a public celebration the whole group cannot easily move, it is sufficient that the person who guides the stations move from one station to the next.
“If someone is legitimately impeded from doing the stations, he or she may obtain the same indulgence through pious reading and meditation on the Lord’s passion and death for about 15 minutes or so.”
The Directory of Popular Piety has a rich an ample explanation of the Via Crucis:
“131. Of all the pious exercises connected with the veneration of the Cross, none is more popular among the faithful than the Via Crucis. Through this pious exercise, the faithful movingly follow the final earthly journey of Christ: from the Mount of Olives, where the Lord, ‘in a small estate called Gethsemane’ (Mk 14, 32), was taken by anguish (cf. Lk 22, 44), to Calvary where he was crucified between two thieves (cf. Lk 23, 33), to the garden where he was placed in freshly hewn tomb (John 19, 40-42).
“The love of the Christian faithful for this devotion is amply attested by the numerous Via Crucis erected in so many churches, shrines, cloisters, in the countryside, and on mountain pathways where the various stations are very evocative.
“132. The Via Crucis is a synthesis of various devotions that have arisen since the high middle ages: the pilgrimage to the Holy Land during which the faithful devoutly visit the places associated with the Lord’s Passion; devotion to the three falls of Christ under the weight of the Cross; devotion to ‘the dolorous journey of Christ’ which consisted in processing from one church to another in memory of Christ’s Passion; devotion to the stations of Christ, those places where Christ stopped on his journey to Calvary because obliged to do so by his executioners or exhausted by fatigue, or because moved by compassion to dialogue with those who were present at his Passion.
“In its present form, the Via Crucis, widely promoted by St. Leonardo da Porto Maurizio (+1751), was approved by the Apostolic See and indulgenced, consists of fourteen stations since the middle of the seventeenth century.
“133. The Via Crucis is a journey made in the Holy Spirit, that divine fire which burned in the heart of Jesus (cf. Lk 12, 49-50) and brought him to Calvary. This is a journey well esteemed by the Church since it has retained a living memory of the words and gestures of the final earthly days of her Spouse and Lord.
“In the Via Crucis, various strands of Christian piety coalesce: the idea of life being a journey or pilgrimage; as a passage from earthly exile to our true home in Heaven; the deep desire to be conformed to the Passion of Christ; the demands of following Christ, which imply that his disciples must follow behind the Master, daily carrying their own crosses (cf Lk 9, 23).
“The Via Crucis is a particularly apt pious exercise for Lent.
“134. The following may prove useful suggestions for a fruitful celebration of the Via Crucis:
“– The traditional form of the Via Crucis, with its fourteen stations, is to be retained as the typical form of this pious exercise; from time to time, however, as the occasion warrants, one or other of the traditional stations might possibly be substituted with a reflection on some other aspects of the Gospel account of the journey to Calvary which are traditionally included in the Stations of the Cross;
“– alternative forms of the Via Crucis have been approved by Apostolic See or publicly used by the Roman Pontiff: these can be regarded as genuine forms of the devotion and may be used as occasion might warrant;
“– The Via Crucis is a pious devotion connected with the Passion of Christ; it should conclude, however, in such fashion as to leave the faithful with a sense of expectation of the resurrection in faith and hope; following the example of the Via Crucis in Jerusalem which ends with a station at the Anastasis, the celebration could end with a commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection.
“135. Innumerable texts exist for the celebration of the Via Crucis. Many of them were compiled by pastors who were sincerely interested in this pious exercise and convinced of its spiritual effectiveness. Texts have also been provided by lay authors who were known for their exemplary piety, holiness of life, doctrine and literary qualities.
“Bearing in mind whatever instructions might have been established by the bishops in the matter, the choice of texts for the Via Crucis should take account of the condition of those participating in its celebration and the wise pastoral principle of integrating renewal and continuity. It is always preferable to choose texts resonant with the biblical narrative and written in a clear simple style.
“The Via Crucis in which hymns, silence, procession, and reflective pauses are wisely integrated in a balanced manner, contribute significantly to obtaining the spiritual fruits of the pious exercise.”
In the light of the above, one can say that the traditional scheme’s 12th station (Christ dies on the Cross) is not special. For example, in the Holy Father’s Good Friday celebration it is not usually underlined in a special way, although occasionally the author of the meditations has introduced some special detail for this station.
However, since there are no particular rules on this point, and customs can vary from place to place, there is no reason why it cannot be emphasized in a particular way if this fosters devotion. For example, it is not uncommon for the faithful to remain kneeling during this entire station, or for a special hymn or short litany to be recited.
However, I would be of the opinion that the overall balance of the pious activity should be maintained and that this station should not be much longer than the other stations so as not to obscure the character of the Via Crucis as a journey.
For this reason, I would consider introducing a practice such as reciting the entire Divine Mercy Chaplet within this station to be somewhat out of place.
* * *
Readers may send questions to email@example.com. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.