Viewpoint: Scriptural Stations of the Cross Need to Be Promoted

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

I notice that in churches built or renovated after Vatican II, the “scriptural” Stations of the Cross approved by Pope John Paul II in 1991 are rarely portrayed. Instead one finds the “traditional” order promulgated by Pope Clement XII in 1731. I suspect that many pastors, architects, and artists are unaware of the revised version first used by John Paul at the Roman Colosseum on Good Friday 1991.

Here are the 1991 scriptural Stations:

1. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane
2. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested
3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin
4. Jesus is denied by Peter
5. Jesus is condemned by Pilate
6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns
7. Jesus carries his Cross
8. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the Cross
9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
10. Jesus is crucified
11. Jesus promises the Kingdom to the repentant thief
12. Jesus speaks to his mother and John
13. Jesus dies on the Cross
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

What were the reasons for the 1991 changes? First, there was a desire to remove scenes that are not explicitly biblical. This includes Jesus meeting his mother on the way to Calvary, the three falls of Jesus, and Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. In their place were added biblical events missing from the traditional Stations, including Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus betrayed by Judas and arrested, Jesus denied by Peter, Jesus promising the Kingdom to the repentant thief, and Jesus speaking from the Cross to his mother and John.

The second, and more fundamental, reason for the changes was that the 1991 Stations were thought to be more adequate theologically. The Clement XII Stations emphasized the sufferings of Jesus on the way to Calvary (thus the emphasis on the three falls), while the John Paul II Stations emphasize the courage and fidelity Jesus displayed in his journey to death (thus the focus in the new Stations on the betrayal Jesus experienced in his encounters with Judas and Pilate), which we are called to imitate.

God does not wish anyone to suffer, nor is suffering in itself pleasing to God; it is the faith-filled attitude that we have in moments of adversity that is pleasing to God. We are saved ultimately by our entry into the saving mystery (story) of Jesus and the inward change that is effected in us.

Msgr. (now Archbishop) Piero Marini, Master of Liturgical Celebrations for Pope John Paul II, wrote that following the Stations of the Cross recalls “the tragic interplay of persons, the struggle between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood . . . which they incarnate. All of them take part in the mystery of the passion, taking sides for or against Jesus, the sign of contradiction.”

I am not suggesting that every church change its Stations from the traditional to the scriptural overnight—but perhaps over time this could be achieved.

People might be open to change if it were explained to them that the Stations with which they are familiar are not as venerable as they might think, and that the number of Stations has varied between seven and thirty since their popularization by the Franciscans in the 13th century.

I know from experience that people are more eager to pay for artwork in churches than for anything else. Perhaps changing the Stations could over time become a parish project which would involve a parish-wide catechetical program.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.



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10 responses to “Viewpoint: Scriptural Stations of the Cross Need to Be Promoted”

  1. Fr Steve Petrica Avatar
    Fr Steve Petrica

    I would not consider it an achievement to displace a devotion that has sustained Catholics for centuries. I have nothing against the “scriptural stations”; I have prayed them myself from time to time. But we don’t need any further revolutionary overthrows in the Catholic Church. If the faithful embrace them over time, so be it. Otherwise, let’s leave them as a permitted alternative.

  2. Todd Orbitz Avatar
    Todd Orbitz

    Pope St. John Paul II used the traditional stations across numerous times after 1991 publicly.

    I maybe wrong, and genuinely interested in finding out the answer if I am, however, I believe the stations were only proposed, but not for formally promulgated as the Stations of the Cross.

    My parish happens to have absolutely no art surrounding the stations, just 14 crosses. That is all that is required.

  3. Aaron Sanders Avatar
    Aaron Sanders

    Since the charge of “fundamentalism” is often bandied about on these pages I feel it appropriate to say that the harder one leans upon the notion that “these stations are better because explicitly biblical” the closer one comes to falling into that trap. It is, of course, a legitimate point to argue, just not if in a way that disparages the vast bulk of ecclesial life that is similarly un-scriptural.

    Also, I don’t believe a list of stations can do all that much theological lifting on its own. The real effect is going to come from the meditations attached, which could be done well on even the worst 14 scenes or poorly with even the optimal events to explore.

    That said, I think the Msgr. is on the mark in drawing attention to the mutability of the Stations over time. Since they did not come to us on divinely etched tablets it is quite possible that we might improve upon them. But the measure of that improvement will in part depend upon its reception as such by the faithful (who “vote with their feet” depending upon what they deem to be spiritually nourishing), so perhaps only 260 years from now will we know if the scriptural Stations really are better than the template of the previous 260 years.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Aaron Sanders:
      I guess I don’t see it as fundamentalist to say that something is better because it is more biblical.

      Fundamentalism is not emphasizing the bible, it is emphasizing particular understandings of the bible (or the magisterium) in the wrong way. Fundamentalism says that certain things have never changed and may not change, even in the face of data (from history or reason or wherever) that suggests otherwise. Fundamentalism discounts what doesn’t fit the absolutist theory.


      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        It might be fundamentalist if it it was cited as the reason why meritorious existing art had to be replaced.

        I think of a small church I periodically attend when visiting my father that has fabulous Stations – copper plates, painted in a late 19th century German style (not Beuronese as best I can tell, nor Nazarene, but another), with the copper background beautiful. It would be a shame if someone felt they had to rip all or some of them out. (Stranger things have happened….) One can pray the Scriptural Stations without replacing good art. The “canonical” part of the Stations is the crosses, in any event (which should be wooden, right….).

        And then there’s the question of *who* shold decide this, and *how*.

        PS: My personal preference would be for the Scriptural Stations, though I am aware that stricter scripturalists may tell me they correspond not to any single Gospel but to an amalgam, just like our manger scenes at Christmastide….

      2. Aaron Sanders Avatar
        Aaron Sanders

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        I was more worried about how fundamentalists (and there is no exact definition because this is an umbrella term covering movements in multiple traditions, religious and non-) tend to be people of one idea (or a very small set ) to which, as you point out, all else must be conformed. Fundamentalists also tend to discount commonalities with other viewpoints or the goods to be found among their errors. In this case – not saying that the Msgr. arrived there, only warning not to press too hard in this direction – it seems to me that the repeated calls (from early modernity to present) to purge the (para-)liturgy of all but its scriptural elements implicitly move beyond an acknowledgment of the unique status of the God-breathed Word to furthermore exclude the possibility that anything spiritually profitable could be found outside of it. And even when liturgists allow non-scriptural elements, they very often canonize a golden age after which no good could come. While traditionalists are criticized for not progressing past 1570, but many in the academy could just as easily be charged with presuming that the Spirit ceased to guide the Church sometime prior to Benedict of Aniane. Likewise, if one were to insist strongly that the “traditional” Stations couldn’t be as edifying as a scriptural set *merely* because they are not exclusively scriptural, one would be near to saying that the Spirit cannot direct us in any substantial way outside the text of Scripture (thus creating a point beyond which nothing may ever change), which position, even if only implicit in one’s thought, would seem to me a fundamentalist constriction of our understanding of revelation, providence, spirituality … and good liturgy. Scriptural basis as one weight among many in the scales is, as I said, a perfectly good criterion; we’re just in trouble if it is seen as a priori decisive.

      3. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        @Aaron Sanders:
        Aaron, these are all good cautions. The liturgy constitution of Vatican II warmly commends devotions but adds:
        “But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.”

        I think Scriptural Stations of the Cross, and also John Paul II’s introduction of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, are both good examples of making the liturgy closer to Scripture and the liturgy.

        I no opponent of the traditional Rosary or the Stations of the Cross, and I admit to forgetting on Thursday to do the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary because the older system is in my consciousness. I try to be faithful to V2 both in appreciating (and using) traditional devotions and in thinking about how to adapt them appropriately in a way that isn’t disruptive to or disrespectful of people’s devotional customs.


  4. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    In many parishes the stations are little more than decorations, including my phone own. About 8 years ago I undertook an experiment regarding the way of the cross. The service began with a song imploring God’s mercy during which I incensed the large cross we venerate on Good Friday. There followed meditations on each scriptural station punctuated with a Taize chant between each one. At the conclusion all present have the opportunity to enter the sanctuary to venerate the cross before leaving while singing Behold The Wood of the Cross. This devotion was so well received it continues to this day. BTW, we have large outdoor stations in a beautiful garden for those who wish to walk the original stations.

  5. Fred Kaffenberger Avatar
    Fred Kaffenberger

    I am happy to embrace either form of the stations, just as I embrace the luminous mysteries and have even prayed a scriptural rosary. If you would like to see the new form, you should encourage a parish or diocese to commission a set of these stations from one of the major studios which provide liturgical art. Or, encourage one of the liturgical publishing houses to produce appropriate booklets. The Vatican has an annual celebration of the way of the cross– has the pope ever had someone write reflections using the other form?

  6. Lee Bacchi Avatar
    Lee Bacchi

    How did the non-biblical stations find their way into the devotion? I’ve no problem with the Scriptural ones, but I think there is also something to say for midrash and Christian imagination.

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