The times change, and we change in them; and one of the saddest of these changes is that which makes us averse to the practice of corporal mortification, on the one hand, and, on the other, prompts too many among us to harmonize with the pernicious principle of Protestantism by desiring to take the interpretation of the laws of the Church as of all other law into our own hands. Yet, notwithstanding this, our Holy Mother the Church tempers her laws as far as possible to the weakness of her children, and instead of exacting the rigorous penances of former ages, to which we are almost entire strangers, permits us to satisfy for temporal punishment on the easier condition of gaining indulgences. Not only so, but she mitigates the conditions of many of these from time to time, so much so that she would almost appear to have lost sight of her former rigorous discipline. While this should humble us, by reminding us that we lack the masculine energy of the Christians of other days, it should also be a strong inducement for us to gain as many indulgences as possible. It is easier to gain indulgences here than it will be to burn in purgatory hereafter.
The Way of the Cross is a devotional exercise, which, while most profitable in itself, is also more liberally enriched with indulgences than any other in the entire range of approved devotions. It is called, indiscriminately, “The Way of the Cross” and “The Stations of the Cross;” and, although the former is the more correct;, both are perfectly intelligible to Christians. How noble the origin of this holy exercise! Jesus Christ it was who first performed the devout exercise of the Way of the Cross, carrying the instrument of man’s redemption on His mangled and bleeding shoulders, and marking each step of the painful journey with His most precious blood—blood which the thoughtless crowd trod ruthlessly into the dust and mire, regardless of its infinite value and of the myriads of angels who bent before its every drop in profoundest adoration. Nothing need be said here of this first Way of the Cross; it is indelibly engraven on the minds and hearts of all reflecting Christians. But let us ask, To whom do we owe the exercise of the Stations of the Cross? This beautiful and inspiring devotion is due, beyond all doubt, to none other than the august Mother of God, the Queen of martyrs. From the moment the Archangel Gabriel saluted Mary as the Mother of the long-expected Messias, she knew, both from the Scriptures of the Old Testament, which doubtless she had read and heard explained during her stay in the temple, and also from her more than seraphic contemplation of the mission of the Man of sorrows, that His Mother must of necessity be the Dolorous Mother. But after the presentation of her divine Infant in the temple, when holy Simeon foretold that her Child was set for the ruin as well as for the redemption of many in Israel, and for a sign that should be contradicted, and that a sword of sorrow should pierce her own soul on account of Him, the sorrowful way was ever present to her mind. Whether an exile in distant and inhospitable Egypt, or at home in her quiet retreat at Nazareth, or accompanying her divine Son during His public ministry, this sorrowful way was never lost sight of. But when it came to be made in the reality, it far exceeded all ideas of it that even the mind of Mary was capable of forming. And once past, it could not be forgotten. The different places that marked the more than common sufferings of her Son and her God were indelibly engraven on her memory; and when His mission on earth was accomplished she would visit these sad scenes either alone or accompanied by other holy women, and there devoutly meditate on the love of God for man. It was thus she became the founder of one of the most fruitful devotions of holy Church.
Of the stations some are referred to in the Sacred Scriptures, as the first, second, fifth, etc.; while the others have been handed down by the constant tradition of the Church, as the third, fourth, seventh, etc. The number of the stations, although generally fourteen or fifteen, was not at first authoritatively fixed; and we learn from a statute of the Archdiocese of Vienna, as late as February 25, 1799, that the number of stations there was but eleven.1 This, however, must have been a local custom, approved by the proper ecclesiastical authority; for according to the rules laid down by Pops Clement XII., April 3, 1731, the number of the stations was fixed for all future time at fourteen. It may be remarked, as is learned from the same decree, that little chapels were sometimes erected for the stations when they were set up outside the church.
No better idea of the high character and inestimable value of the Way of the Cross can be conveyed to the mind of the reader than that contained in the following quotation from the Raccolta (pp. 102, 103): “Among the devotional exercises which have for their object meditation on the Passion. Cross, and Death of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the sovereign means for the conversion of sinners, for the renovation of the tepid, and for the sanctification of the just, one of the chief has ever been the exercise of the Way of the Cross. This devotion, continued in an unbroken tradition from the time Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, arose first in Jerusalem, amongst the Christians who dwelt there, out of veneration for those sacred spots which were sanctified by the sufferings of our divine Redeemer. From that time, as we learn from St. Jerome, Christians were wont to visit the holy places in crowds; and the gathering of the faithful, he says, even from the farthest corners of the earth, to visit the holy places, continued to his own time. From Jerusalem this devout exercise began to be introduced into Europe by various pious and holy persons who had travelled to the Holy Land to satisfy their devotion. Amongst others, we read of the Blessed Alvarez, of the Order of Friar Preachers, who, after he returned to his own convent of St. Dominic, in Cordova, built some little chapels, in which he represented, station by station, the principal events which took place on Our Lord’s way to Mount Calvary. Afterward, more formally, the Fathers Minorite Observants of ths Order of St. Francis, as soon as ever, on the foundation of their Order, they were introduced into the Holy Land, and more especially from the time when, in the year 1342, they had their house in Jerusalem, and the custody of the sacred places, began, both in Italy and elsewhere, in short, throughout the whole Catholic world, to spread the devotion of the Way of the Cross. This they effected by erecting, in all their own churches, fourteen separate stations, in visiting which the faithful, like the devout pilgrims who go to visit the holy places in Jerusalem, do themselves also make this journey in spirit, whilst they meditate on all that Our Lord Jesus Christ vouchsafed to suffer for our eternal salvation at those holy places in the last hours of His life. This excellent devotion has met with the repeated approvals of holy Church: in the constitutions, for instance, of the venerable Pontiff Innocent XI. . . . and of Clement XII. By this last Pope it was extended to the whole world.” This extension was made by his constitution Exponi Nobis, of January 16, 1731.
The reader may form an idea of the zeal with which some saintly missionaries have labored for the propagation of this devotion—which is at the same time the strongest evidence of the value they set upon it—from the single instance of St. Leonard of Port Maurice, who erected no less than five hundred and seventy-two sets of stations. It was he, too, who induced Pope Benedict XIV. to have them erected in the Colosseum at Rome, the spot which had been so frequently bedewed with the blood of martyrs; and the saint himself preached on the occasion. It was here that Archbishop Hughes, of New York, during one of his visits to the Holy City, performed the Way of the Cross, accompanied by five thousand people.
One of the first questions that will present itself to the minds of those who read this essay will be: What are the indulgences granted by the Holy See to the devout performance of the Way of the Cross? Here something extraordinary confronts us: it is that no preacher or catechist is permitted to state from the pulpit or in writing what precisely are the indulgences gained by the performance of the Way of the Cross!2 “One of the reasons for this may have been the loss of many of the ancient briefs by which the Holy See had applied several rich indulgences to that pious practice, and which, it is said, were destroyed at Jerusalem on the occasion of the burning of the archives belonging to the Franciscan Friars there. The instructions, however, assign a different reason. For in the rule referred to, it is expressly stated as having been ascertained, on more occasions than one, that, either through malice, negligence, or excessive zeal, the truth of the indulgences had been so altered as to render them altogether obscure and uncertain.3 It is only permitted, and it is sufficient, to state in general terms that whoever performs devoutly the holy Way of the Cross will gain this same indulgences as he would if he were to visit the actual Way of the Cross in Jerusalem.4 What some at least of these indulgences are may be learned from Father Vitromile’s “Travels in Europe and the Holy Land.” All the indulgences granted to the Way of the Cross may be gained by those who perform the devotion, either in public or in private, by day or by night (D. March 1, 1819). They can also be applied to the souls in purgatory. Father Maurel states (p. 147) that, “should a person perform the Way of the Cross repeatedly on the same day, he can gain the indulgences each time.” This has been modified, however, by a more recent decree, and it cannot now be maintained. The question having been put to the Sacred Congregation, the response was, that: “From the documents in the possession of the Congregation it is not certain (non constat) that a person will gain the indulgences as often as he performs the holy exercise” (D. September 10 1883).
It is needless to state that, in order to gain these indulgences, whether a person performs the devotion in public or in private, he must strictly comply with all the conditions prescribed by the Holy See. These conditions may be divided into (1) such as refer to the stations themselves; (2) such as refer to the person who erects them; and (3) such as refer to the person or persons performing the holy Way of the Cross. And first as to the stations themselves. The stations may be erected either inside or outside the church or chapel; but when erected outside they should either begin or end in the church or in some other holy place; the place they occupy should be properly guarded against profanation, and there should also be a set of stations in the church to be used in inclement weather (D. April 3, 1731). The indulgences are attached to the crosses only which surmount the pictures or reliefs representing the various scenes in the sorrowful journey of our divine Redeemer. Hence the pictures or reliefs need not be blessed (D. January 30, 1839); but they may be blessed.5 If the pictures become defaced, or if it is desirable to change them for others, and the first crosses are retained, it is not necessary to bless the latter anew ; they are simply to be placed over the new pictures or reliefs, and the indulgences are not lost (D. August 22, 1842). But it is carefully to be borne in mind that the crosses must, under penalty of forfeiting all the indulgences, be of wood, in the strict acceptation of the word, and must be large enough and so placed as to be visible to the people (DD. June 2, 1838, and November 23, 1878). Nor should the crosses have the image of our divine Saviour upon them.6 If the stations are taken from the church or place in which they were first erected, and placed in another location, with the intention that it shall be in future their permanent place, they lose the indulgences, and require a new erection (D. January 30, 1839). But if they are only taken out of the church or place for a time, in order that the church may be repaired or frescoed, and are then restored to their places, the indulgences are not lost and no new erection is necessary. The same is true if they are arranged differently in the same church or place. But a person who performs the Way of the Cross before the places where the stations were before their removal, or who performs it before the stations in the place to which they are temporarily removed, will not gain the indulgences (D. December 16, 1760). From all this we are to understand that when the stations are erected in a certain place, it is in that place only that the indulgences can be gained before them.
It must have struck persons who are accustomed to perform the Way of the Cross in different churches that the stations do not always begin on the same side of the altar. In one they will be found to start on the Gospel side, in another on the Epistle side. Indeed, it would appear to be left rather to the caprice of the artist, if such he can always be called, who paints the stations than to any legislative enactment of the Church to determine the direction in which the Way of the Cross is to be made. There is no positive enactment in the matter; and so far as the indulgences are concerned, it is perfectly indifferent whether they begin on the one side of the altar or the other. Maurel says (p. 150) that “general usage, grounded on the basis of piety and congruity, would have the first station commence on the Gospel side of the church. But this arrangement is not strictly required.” And he quotes a decree of March 13, 1837.
Next, as regards the conditions to be observed by the person who erects the stations, few remarks need be made, because it will naturally be taken for granted that the essential conditions have been complied with. It may not, however, be amiss to venture the following observations. By erecting the Stations or Way of the Cross is meant the blessing and placing of them in the position they are destined afterwards to occupy, and doing so in such a manner and by such authority that persons performing the exercise of the Way of the Cross before them, with the proper dispositions, will gain all the indulgences granted by the Holy See to this salutary devotion. It is not necessary that there should be a fixed or an equal distance between the different stations, much less that they should be as far apart as the stations of the way of Calvary in Jerusalem (D. December 3, 1736). But yet there must be some distance between them (D. August 28, 1752).
According to the rules for the erecting of the stations, the privilege was reserved to the Minor Observantine Fathers, under penalty of forfeiting the indulgences; and others who wanted the stations erected were required to have the ceremony performed by one of these fathers, or obtain the privilege from the Superior-General of that Order (D. April 3, 1731). But many bishops have now received the faculty from the Holy See, not only of erecting the stations themselves, but also of delegating such of their priests to perform the same function as they see fit. As regards the validity of the erection, it is not necessary that the priest who performs the ceremony should personally set up the different stations. He can employ another, even a laic, to do this (D. March 20, 1846); or he may himself place them privately on an occasion different from that of their blessing, and without any ceremony (DD. August 22, 1842, March 20, 1846). By a decree of September 25, 1841, it was made obligatory that the request for faculties, or permission, to erect the stations in a church or other place, the granting of the request, and all the papers relating to the erection, should be in writing, and should be kept in the diocesan archives, and that it least a brief account of the whole proceeding should also be kept in the church itself; and all this under pain of nullity as regards the gaining of the indulgences. These documents, too, were to be executed with as little delay as possible, lest a doubt might afterwards arise regarding the validity of the erection; although it was not required, as some persons imagined, that this should be done within twenty-four hours (D. February 10, 1844). Maurel is of opinion that this was not required under the penalty of forfeiting the indulgences, and says (p. 151): “Looking at the decisions issued by the Sacred Congregation, January 27, 1838, it does not appear that these different formalities are exacted under pain of nullity. This may be inferred from the very words which I took at the Segretaria of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences.” This decree is not found in the Decrees of this Congregation lately published by order of the Holy Father. But a later decree (June 21, 1879) requires the written permission of the bishop for each case under pain of nullity. And Schneider (p. 269) makes no reference to the above remarks of Maurel, although translating and editing his work; and since he wrote after the date of the last decree, and yet insists upon all that is contained in the former one, he seems clearly to be of the opinion that all these conditions are required by the Holy See. From other authorities and the present practice there remains no doubt in the matter.
With regard to those who perform the devout exercise of the Way of the Cross, they may be divided into three classes: those who perform it in public with a leader; those who perform it in private; and those who, through infirmity or for any other sufficient reason, are not able to make the Stations in the church, but use a crucifix, blessed for that purpose, at home. The conditions for gaining the indulgences are but two in number: First, to go from one station to another around the entire fourteen, without omitting any. “Hence it is necessary to rise at each station, change One’s place, and go from one to another, unless a person be prevented from doing so by reason of some infirmity, the narrowness of the place, or a crowd of people; because, in that case, it would be enough to make some slight movement, and turn toward the following station. By this pious exercise the faithful reproduce, on a small scale, the pilgrimage of the Way of the Cross of Jerusalem. But bear in mind that wherever it is impossible to pass from one station to another the decrees invariably require some motion of the body” (DD. September 30, 1837, February 26, 1841). Again: “When the devotion is gone through publicly, to avoid all confusion, it is permitted by a decree dated July 23, 1757, to adopt the method observed by St. Leonard of Port Maurice : ‘that all the people remain in their respective places, while the priest, accompanied by two chanters, goes around the different stations, and, stopping before each of them, recites there the usual prayers, to which the faithful answer in their turn.’”7 No vocal prayers are required to be said as a condition for gaining the indulgences, when the Stations are performed either in public or in private, except by those who constitute the third class named above; and of those further on. Says the Raccolta (p. 104): “The recitation at each of the stations of the words: ‘We adore Thee, Christ,’ etc., the ‘Our Father,’ the ‘Hail Mary,’ and the ‘Have mercy on us, O Lord,’ is nothing more than a pious and praiseworthy custom, introduced by devout persons in the devotion of the Way of the Cross. This the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences declared in the Instructions for performing the exercise of the Way of the Cross, Nos vi. and xi., published by the order and with the approbation of Clement XII. (April 3, 1731) and Benedict XIV. (May 10, 1742).”
The second condition for gaining the indulgences of the stations is contained in these words of the Raccolta (p. 103): “All who wish to gain the indulgences by means of this devotion must bear in mind that it is indispensably required of them to meditate, according to their ability, on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Mind, it does not lay down that a special meditation ought to be made on each of the fourteen stations. It suffices to meditate on the Passion in general, for nowhere in the Constitutions of the Holy See is it enjoined to meditate on each individually. True, the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences, having been consulted on the matter, replied that one should meditate on the mysteries represented by the fourteen stations (February 16, 1839). But at Rome this declaration is regarded as a counsel, and not as an essential condition for sharing in the indulgences, especially since the same decree, No. 3, even expressly states that a short meditation on the Passion of Our Lord is what is prescribed for participating in these favors. I give the very words of the Instruction: ‘Any short meditation on Our Saviour’s Passion suffices, which is the work enjoined for obtaining the holy indulgences’ (D. April 3, 1731). Persons not knowing how to meditate may content themselves with pious thoughts on some circumstances of the Passion, according to their capacities. . . . Confession and Communion are not required; it is enough to be in the state of grace, and to have a sincere sorrow for one’s sins.”8
Another important inquiry is that regarding the interruptions that are or are not permitted those who perform this devotion. The rule which applies here is similar to that which obtains in the case of any other devotion, such as the Rosary; that is, that a person who should interrupt the Way of the Cross to hear Mass, go to Holy Communion, confession, etc., would not lose the indulgences, provided there was not a notable or moral interruption (D. December 16, 1760).
The second class of persons, or those who perform the Stations in private in the church, are not required to fulfil any other conditions than those imposed on the first class, except that they must pass from one station to another. They should not perform them during Mass or Vespers, nor when any other public devotion is going on in the church (D. April 3, 1731).
As to the third class, the infirm and others hindered from performing the Way of the Cross before stations erected in a church or chapel, the Church, in her maternal solicitude for their spiritual welfare, is unwilling to deprive them, through no fault of theirs, of the advantages of this devotion. Accordingly, Pope Clement XIV. (D. January 26, 1773) granted the following privileges to such persons, which were confirmed by Pius IX. (D. August 8, 1859): “All who are sick, all who are in prison, or at sea, or in heathen lands, or are prevented in any other way from visiting the Stations of the Way of the Cross erected in churches or public oratories, may gain these indulgences by saying, with at least contrite heart and devotion, the ‘Our Father,’ the ‘Hail Mary,’ and the ‘Glory be to the Father,’ each fourteen times, and, at the end of these, the ‘Our Father,’ the ‘Hail Mary,’ and the ‘Glory be to the Father,’ each five times; and, again, one ‘Our Father,’ ‘Hail Mary,’ and ‘Glory be to the Father ‘ for the Sovereign Pontiff, holding in their hands the while a crucifix of brass, or of any other solid substance, which has been blessed by the Father General of the Order of the Friars Minor Observants, or else by the Father Provincial, or by any Father Guardian subject to said Father General.”9 It may be added that any other priest can be, and frequently is, authorized to bless such crucifixes. As to the reasons that would be deemed sufficient to justify a person in performing the Way of the Cross with one of these crucifixes, “a moral impossibility suffices. . . . Thus a person on a journey, or in the country, at a considerable distance from the parish church, may be constituted in a moral impossibility of visiting the Stations. So, too, as regards a priest or religious who, on account of his multiplied duties, or for other grave reasons, is unable to visit a church to go through the Stations. Accordingly, all such persons may perform the Stations privately by means of the crucifix. It may be well to note that the person possessing the crucifix indulgenced for the Way of the Cross can alone gain the indulgence: the privilege is personal (D. May 29, 1841). Again, conformably to recent decrees, the crucifix can never be sold, or given away, or lent to others with the intention of communicating to them the indulgences. Though, strictly speaking, all crucifixes, no matter how diminutive, can be blessed for this end, it would not be becoming to apply the indulgences to very small ones, which would scarcely be visible in the hands of those using them. In fine, recollect that, pursuant to the late decree quoted above, the twenty ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys,’ and ‘Glory be to the Fathers’ should be said without, at least, any notable interruption which might break the moral connection or unity of the prayer.”10
I may remark that I have seen small pictures of the fourteen stations so joined together as to fold up, but which had no crosses whatever surmounting them; yet the persons having them believed they could gain the indulgences of the Way of the Cross by using them. This is certainly erroneous, inasmuch as the decrees above cited require, in all cases, the cross or crosses—fourteen of wood when the stations are erected in a church or chapel, and one of brass or some other solid material when blessed for the use of the infirm or of such as are hindered from performing the devotion before duly erected stations. It is never to be forgotten that in matters relating to indulgences we must in all cases conform strictly to the conditions laid down by the Holy See in granting them; for nothing is left to our free choice. Part may be, and is, sometimes, left to the discretion of our spiritual director, but not to our discretion.
1 “Kirchen-Lexicon,” vol. vi. p. 274.
2 Raccolata, p. 104.
3 Maurel on Indulgences, pp. 144, 145.
4 Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences and Holy Relics, April 13, 1731. In the rest of this essay the decrees of this Congregation, which will frequently be quoted, will be given in the text as “D,” with date.
5 Maurel, p. 148.
6 Ibid., p. 149.
7 Maurel, pp. 144, 145.
8 Maurel, pp. 145, 146.
9 Raccolata, p. 104.
10 Maurel, pp. 153, 154.