Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Are the Stations of the Cross liturgical, and who qualifies as the minister? — B.A., Enugu State, Nigeria
A: The Stations of the Cross are not liturgical as such but fall under the heading of pious exercises.
The Holy See’s 2001 “Directory for Popular Piety” gives the following definition of these exercises:
“7. The expression ‘pious exercise’ in this Directory refers to those public or private expressions of Christian piety which, although not part of the Liturgy, are considered to be in harmony with the spirit, norms, and rhythms of the Liturgy. Moreover, such pious exercises are inspired to some degree by the Liturgy and lead the Christian people to the Liturgy. Some pious exercises have been established by mandate of the Apostolic See or by mandate of the Bishops. Many of these exercises are part of the cultic patrimony of particular Churches or religious families. Pious exercises always refer to public divine revelation and to an ecclesial background. They often refer to the grace revealed by God in Jesus Christ and, in conformity with the laws of the Church, they are practiced ‘in accordance with approved customs or books.'”
The directory later on specifically includes the Via Crucis, among the pious practices in Nos. 131-135:
“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’ (Mark 14:32), was taken by anguish (cf. Luke 22:44), to Calvary where he was crucified between two thieves (cf. Luke 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 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. Luke 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. Luke 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.”
With respect to receiving the indulgence for making the way of the Cross, the Enchiridion of Indulgences, No. 63.4, gives some pertinent indications.
The above-mentioned norms for indulgences demand 14 crosses in order to legitimately set up a Via Crucis at which an indulgence may be obtained. Images or statues may be praiseworthily, albeit optionally, added.
They stipulate that in order to gain the plenary indulgence it is necessary to move from one station to another, although if the exercise is carried out publicly and it is difficult for everybody to move, then it is enough that the director move from station to station.
The Enchiridion, No. 63.5, also grants the indulgence to those who, legitimately impeded, meditate or engage in spiritual reading on the Passion for about 15 minutes. Any legitimate impediment is sufficient, such as not having reasonable access to a legitimate Via Crucis. Thus, for example, any Way of the Cross that moves from one place to another and lasts longer than 15 minutes would qualify for the indulgence even though there were no legitimate stations. This is the case in many open-air stations and indeed is the case for the Pope’s Good Friday Way of the Cross at the Colosseum.
In order to obtain the indulgence, one moves from one station to the other, reflecting on Christ’s passion to which one may freely add some reading, meditation or pious invocations. It is not required that one reflect on the specific aspects of each station.
Because of this, both the Directory and the Enchiridion, No. 63.6, says that other approved pious exercises commemorating the Passion, and divided into 14 stations, also qualify for the indulgence. Thus some new schemes have been used at the Pope’s Way of the Cross. These new stations have usually been taken from the Gospels, but there does not appear to be a fixed or official scheme. On one occasion some new “Gospel Stations” were mixed with the traditional non-biblical stations of the three falls. Thus a priest or anybody else who wishes to prepare meditations on alternative Via Crucis has a wide range of possibilities.
All told, however, the most common scheme used in substitution for the traditional stations at the Pope’s Via Crucis has been the following:
1. The Agony in the garden
2. Treason of Judas and arrest of Jesus
3. Christ condemned by the Sanhedrin
4. Christ denied by Peter
5. Christ judged by Pilate
6. Christ scourged and crowned with thorns
7. Christ burdened with the cross
8. Christ assisted by Simon of Cyrene
9. Christ meets the women of Jerusalem
10. Christ crucified
11. Christ promises the kingdom to the Good Thief
12. Christ on the cross; the Mother; and the disciple
13. Christ dies on the cross
14. Christ taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb
Finally, with respect as to who may act as guide or director of the Via Crucis: If a priest or deacon is available, then he customarily leads, but if not, then anybody may guide the stations although leaving out anything properly reserved to a priest and deacon, such as giving a final blessing.
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Follow-up: Why Abstinence From Meat
Several readers commented on our March 1 column regarding fasting and abstinence.
One reader took umbrage at a glaring absence in my response: “In the long, technical answer, not one mention of Jesus Christ. Has our Lent become so horizontal — that the Lord’s forty days, that his suffering and death — are forgotten?”
All I can say is mea culpa; at times the effort to be technically precise can obscure the essential things.
Another reader, from Great Britain, corrected an error as to ecclesiastical divisions: “The bishops of the United Kingdom had a similar rule but some years ago decided to return to the traditional practice of abstinence on all Fridays of the year.” I think you perhaps mean the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The entirely separate Bishops’ Conference of Scotland (which is, as yet, still in the United Kingdom) chose that each Catholic should choose their own penance on every Friday of the year, and has not changed that position.”
A reader from the Democratic Republic of Congo expressed dissatisfaction with a part of my reply: “I was expecting to learn the true reasons of this abstinence in connection with the Lenten season, being the period of preparation to the Easter celebration. Is the fact of not eating meat during Lent automatically produce conversion during Lent and prepare for the Easter celebration? ‘The idea of abstinence is to prefer a simpler, less sumptuous diet than normal,’ you said. This answer of yours does not convince me, because you may find also a very sumptuous diet without meat. You may find fish that is more expensive than meat. What about vegetarians? Is it just the fact of not eating meat that is important or there is something deeper? What about those people who are just very faithful to these old practices of the Church but do not make any effort of conversion? Is this not a way of being pharisaic?”
Actually, if that had been my reply I would not have been satisfied either. While I perhaps did not stress enough the preparation of Easter, I believe I did address our reader’s concern. For example, I said:
“The purpose of these laws of abstinence is to educate us in the higher spiritual law of charity and self-mastery.
“This spiritual purpose can also help us to understand the reasons for excluding flesh meat on penitential days. There was a once-widespread belief that flesh meat provoked and excited the baser human passions. Renouncing these foodstuffs was considered an excellent means of conquering the wayward self and orienting one’s life toward God.
“The ascetic and spiritual purpose of fasting and abstinence can also help us to understand why it has always been tied to almsgiving.
“In this way, it makes little sense to give up steak so as to gorge on lobster and caviar. The idea of abstinence is to prefer a simpler, less sumptuous diet than normal.
“We thus have something extra to give to those less fortunate than ourselves and also train ourselves in freedom from slavery to material pleasures. Even a Catholic vegetarian can practice abstinence by substituting a typical, yet more expensive, element of the diet for something simpler.”
Fasting and abstinence, like any religious practices, are subject to the temptation of hypocrisy and being pharisaical. However, the challenge is to live them as they are meant to be lived and not leave them aside because there is danger.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.