Medieval Devotion to the Passion
Besides its roots in the experiences of Holy Land pilgrims, the Stations of the Cross in its present form grew out of medieval devotion to the passion of Jesus. Medieval Christians were intensely interested in the humanity of Jesus and the details of his life. Their interest came, not from intellectual curiosity, but from the dire conditions that followed the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Fratricidal wars, prolonged economic hardship, famine and plague left the peoples of Europe in fear and anxiety, and they sought the help of Jesus Christ.
From the scriptures, they drew solace from Jesus who suffered, died and rose again. Instead of the tools of modern archeology or history-- on which we rely so much today-- they depended for guidance and inspiration on pilgrims and mystics. Saints like Saint Bernard (+1153) and Saint Francis of Assisi (+1226) brought Jesus close to them--Jesus who shared their wounds. Visions of pilgrims like Saint Bridget of Sweden (+1373), and meditation books like the 13th century Meditations on the Life of Christ added intimate details to the gospel story. Further impetus came from the Crusaders, who brought their remembrances of places associated with Jesus back to Europe.
Spiritual Pilgrimages and the Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross and other devotions to the passion of Jesus developed in this climate. In the 15th century, spiritual writers in the Lowlands began promoting "spiritual pilgrimages" for those who could not go to the Holy Land. The Carmelite, John Pascha, offers a popular book of meditations to "those that cannot go there in person, but can still make this voyage by the grace of God, through devout and pious meditations. You will find the holy places in this book as if you saw them with your own eyes, as pilgrims saw them, who were there personally." Representations of the Stations of the Cross, varying in number, multiplied throughout Europe to aid those making "spiritual pilgrimages".
The Fourteen Stations in 18th century Europe
Through most of its history, the Stations of the Cross was a fluid devotion that took different forms from place to place. The number of stations and the incidents they commemorate vary. Sometimes they are 7, sometimes 12, and sometimes again 18. Only in the 18th century did the devotion become fixed to the 14 stations as they are today.
Devotion to the Stations of the Cross in its present form spread rapidly throughout the Roman Catholic world in the 18th century, largely through the preaching of the Franciscan, Saint Leonard of Port-Maurice, who erected stations and promoted the devotion in over five hundred churches and places throughout Italy. His work was supported by the popes of his time, who saw the devotion as a way of strengthening faith.
The Franciscans, in fact, played a major role in developing the devotion in the Holy Land, in Europe and in the Americas. Other 18th century saints like Saint Alphonsus Liguori and Saint Paul of the Cross promoted the Stations of the Cross. Religious communities like the Jesuits, the Redemptorists and the Passionists incorporated it into their missions and retreats. By the l9th century, the Stations of the Cross in its present form had spread beyond continental Europe and were a staple in Catholic prayer books and churches throughout England, Ireland, and the Americas. Moreover, the devotion has gone beyond the Roman Catholic community, as other Christians find spiritual nourishment in it.