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Teaching the Stations of the Cross to Children

by Lynn Ballas
The Stations of the Cross are a beloved tradition for many Christians, who could not conceive of Lenten devotion without them. But how do adults teach the stations to children when the stations present the very things we wish to protect children from, injustice, cruelty, suffering, and death?
Space A writer, an artist, and a lifelong religious educator, share their unique ways of shepherding children through the pain of the cross to the love of Jesus.

Teaching childrenLook at Jesus, Look at Your Heart
Space In her book, "Stations of the Cross, Children and Their Families with Jesus," writer and educator, Lucille Perrotta Castro, tells children:
Space "Stations are places where people wait while they are going from one place to another. A school-bus stop is like a station…Think of some stations where you have been.
Space" Stations are also places where people take time to think about Jesus as he went to die on a cross. They are ‘Stations of the Cross.' They show us how much Jesus loved us."
At each station, Castro, invites children to "look at Jesus" and then to "look at your heart." Here is Castro's interpretation of the Second Station, "Soldiers Put a Heavy Cross on Jesus' Shoulders:"

Look at Jesus
When the soldiers put a big, heavy cross on Jesus' shoulders, Jesus doesn't fight with them or say angry words to them. He knows that he has to carry this cross a long way, and he knows that the way will be very hard for him at times. But Jesus knows that God is with him, and he asks God to help him to carry this cross, even though it is heavy.
Look at Your Heart
Have you ever had something happen that was very hard for you? Sometimes children are very sick, or someone in their family is very sick. Sometimes adults or older children do not treat younger children nicely. Sometimes we just can't have things the way we want them.
Take some time to look at what your heart is like when this happens. Then, when you see what your heart is like, show your heart to Jesus. See Jesus loving you when you show him what happens in your heart. When you are ready, you can ask Jesus to help make your heart more like his.
Castro's soothing words assure children that Jesus loves them no matter how they feel. She gently encourages children, when they are ready, to ask Jesus to make their hearts more like his.

A Children's Video
Children's VideoSpace
Recently, six children from the Religious Education Program at St. Mary's parish in Colts Neck, New Jersey, took part in the making of a DVD about the Stations of the Cross. Produced by Passionist Press, the DVD is designed as a tool for teaching children.
Space Cinematographer Mauro De Trizio, filmed the children, who ranged in age from three to ten, as they listened to parishioner Gina Barnett, read to them from Castro's book. Castro is the Director of Adult and Family Ministry at St. Mary's.
Space The children were very attentive to Barnett's calm voice. They were also guided in their experience of the stations by looking at the colorful drawings of each scene, created by the book's illustrator, Sister Mary Clement Pagliari. At the conclusion of each station, Barnett invited the boys and girls to share their thoughts about what happened to Jesus.
Space Thomas Barnett, age 10, was able to connect the Passion with his own life. "If someone is mean to you, you shouldn't be mean back to him," Thomas said, adding "try to work things out."
Space Understandably, the children did not like it when Jesus is nailed to the cross and dies. They did not want to talk about Jesus being stripped of his garments. Their favorite part was when "Jesus came alive again."
Space As filming wrapped up, the littlest member of the group, 3-year-old Trinity Dalmazio, proclaimed in her tiny voice, "He is our Savior."

Images for Children
The stations come alive to children in the telling of the story in both words and images. Artist Sister Mary Clement fills her stations with vibrant colors and soft familiar images.
BookSpace Throughout, children appear in various scenes, bearing witness to the suffering of their Lord, just as the adults do. In Pagliari's stations, children encourage Jesus as he carries his heavy cross, their little faces show how upset they are to see him fall, and they are comforted by Jesus when he stops to talk to the crying women. A young child stands at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies.
Space "When I was asked to do this project, I had to renew my self sort of. I had to go back to the Passion and read my Scripture a little more carefully." Pagliari said she prayed and asked the Lord to help her. As she made the Stations of the Cross herself, she started to visualize her drawings.
Space "From the beginning, I made up my mind that this was not going to be like the Mel Gibson movie. This is a children's book, something that would attract children, but still (let them) see the suffering."
Space Pagliari's stations are rich purples, deep oranges, and bright yellows. In some of the sadder stations, as when Jesus fall the first time, the sky is indigo. As Jesus hangs on the cross, a circle of light envelopes him, but beyond the light the sky is dark. The resurrection is in bright yellows and white.
Space One of the challenges that the artist encountered was depicting Jesus as he succumbs to the weight of the cross. "How do I make him fall without looking clumsy or like it's his own fault?" Pagliari decided to use a mannequin, which she could then position into the various postures that she needed to capture in her illustrations.
SpaceAsked what she would like children to take away from her art, she recalled a little five-year-old boy she taught years ago. Upon coming into the classroom and seeing Jesus hanging on the cross, he burst into tears and said "I don't want to see that anymore."
Space "I want to tell children, ‘don't be afraid,'" Pagliari said. "I want them to realize that (the suffering) is over. Jesus died…to bring us to heaven. I want them to see the positive side."

Stations outsideWalking with Jesus
Sister Maeve McDermott, principal St. Patrick's Grammar School in Jersey City, said that the children of her parish travel their own Via Dolorosa each Friday night in Lent as the make their stations walking the blocks of their neighborhood. According to McDermott, the custom comes from the Spanish and people from Central America.
Space "They walk the neighborhood and see where a shooting took place or where a building burned down…It's much more contemporary." she said. They relate Christ's suffering to the that of their neighbors, classmates, families, perhaps themselves.
Space While not every teacher can make the experience so visceral, McDermott encourages teachers to relate the stations to "something of the day." If necessary, supplement teaching materials with words that are meaningful to children, she suggests.
Space McDermott expresses her hopes for children in this way, "I pray that all young people that might have committed their first sin…don't get discouraged, but get up and try again."

Thomas Brown: Instructor to Instructors
At what age should children learn the Stations of the Cross? Thomas Brown, a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office on Parish Cathecetics, believes that children as young as kindergarten age can be taught the stations.
Space Based in the Paterson Diocesan Center in Clifton, New Jersey, Brown provides guidance to religious educators. Before assuming the consultant position, Brown taught in Catholic school for 37 years.
SpaceWhen asked if the method of teaching the stations has evolved over time, Brown said that adding the Fifteenth Station - the Resurrection, was a big change. "You can't understand the Passion, unless you understand his teachings, his life, his resurrection," said Brown. "All four Gospels deal with the Passion in slightly different ways, but all conclude with the resurrection," he pointed out.
Space Traditional emphasis on the Passion is understandable, according to Brown. "The crucifixion was a cataclysmic event for the first disciples," said Brown. "It was their 9/11."
Space For Brown, the value of this devotion is clear. "The stations help us to learn the story of Jesus' last day and they challenge us to know it well enough to live it out now."
Space Brown sees a two-fold message that educators can convey to children when teaching the Stations of the Cross. "First, Jesus had to remain faithful to the Father's will no matter what the consequences." A young child could relate to remaining faithful to going to Sunday mass even if a friend makes fun of him or her for doing so, Brown offered.
Space "Second, emphasize Jesus' love for us," said Brown. "He loved us to the very end. That is important to young people who may not feel love."
Space When asked what reaction has most struck him during his nearly four decades of teaching the stations, Brown said that his most memorable experience came just a few weeks ago. While sitting in a darkened movie theater watching "The Passion of the Christ," Brown heard a young child cry out "Why, Mommy, Why?"
SpaceTo this child, and to all our children, we must respond: love!

Sign of the Passion
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Copyright 2004 - all rights reserved - Passionist Missionaries of Union City, NJ, USA

Publisher: Terence Kristofak, C.P., Provincial Eastern Province
Editor: Victor Hoagland, C.P. • Coeditors: Mary Ann Strain, C.P. and Kevin Dance, C.P.
Art Director: Sr. Mary Clement • CSAC Circulation: James Fitzgerald