Undoubtedly, the early Christians held the sites of Christ's sorrowful journey to the cross in highest esteem. For some years, there would still be those who walked the steps with Him and who stood at the foot of His cross -- including the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle (who lived much later). It would be expected, then, that Christians would visit the places where Christ walked on the way to Calvary and even pray at the hill on which our redemption was won.
These early Christians knew well the various stops along the way. They regularly saw the stairs and praetorium where Christ was tried by Pontius Pilate. The place of our Lord's Crucifixion and Resurrection would have been well known to them. Pilgrims coming from the West desired to see these places and desired to know how Christ traveled from the place of His unjust condemnation to His Crucifixion - the Via Dolorosa or Via Sacra. The Stations of the Cross had their origin in the actual locations in Jerusalem and in the ordinary desire of Christians to honor the way of Christ's walk to the cross.
Early pilgrims to the Holy Land brought these stories of the places and their devotion home with them. In the 400s, Saint Petronius erected a series of chapels in Bologna, Italy, dedicated to the important shrines of Jerusalem. During the Crusades, when pilgrimages and travels to the Holy Land resumed, there was a renewed interest among Europeans in the Via Sacra. By the 11th century, these pilgrims had popularized the devotion. The Franciscans, who were granted administration of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem in 1342, increased its popularity.
In the 1400s, the Stations of the Cross became extremely popular in Europe. Unlike the artistic expressions found in churches today, they were usually a series of outdoor shrines with a walk way or path to follow.
In 1686, Pope Innocent XI granted the Franciscans the right to erect Stations of the Cross within their churches. It was only as late as 1862 that the right to erect Stations of the Cross in non-Franciscan churches was extended to bishops throughout the Catholic Church. So what we know today has its roots more recently than often thought, though the practice of walking the stations as part of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is, indeed, ancient. It may be of interest to note, however, that the Eastern Christians have no direct correlating history or practice to the Stations of the Cross.
The traditional stations include both Biblical and non-Biblical events. Some more modern stations include only Biblical events and some often include a 15th Station for the Resurrection. The traditional ones are:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus bears his cross
- Jesus falls the first time
- Jesus meets his mother
- Jesus is helped by Simon
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls a second time
- Jesus speaks to the women
- Jesus falls a third time
- Jesus is stripped of his garments
- Jesus is nailed to the Cross
- Jesus dies on the Cross
- Jesus is taken down from the Cross
- Jesus is placed in the tomb