When Holy Land pilgrims returned home, they often brought back a bit of Palestine. In addition to relics, the pilgrims also brought back the desire to re-create scenes from the Holy Land in order to share their experiences with those unable to visit the holy places firsthand. When the Holy Land was closed to western visitors, European replicas of the sacred sites became increasingly popular. Outside of Jerusalem, the tradition of walking the via sacra in commemoration of Christ’s passion, death, and burial with “stations” is mentioned as early as the twelfth century and all of the references point to an outdoor celebration. There was no standard celebration of the via sacra. Depending on the location there were as few as seven and as many as 42 stations. Interestingly, in the beginning, the customary route apparently was the reverse of ours, starting with Calvary and ending at Pilate’s house – and included many other stops that are no longer considered part of the Via Dolorosa (“Sorrowful Way”).
Within the Franciscan tradition Stations of the Cross were part of the Lenten devotional soon after St. Francis’ return from the Holy Land in 1221. The Franciscans became active in the development of the devotion of the Stations of the Cross when they were granted custody of the sacred sites of Jerusalem in 1343. Then they began to promote the devotion of Christ’s passion. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Franciscans began to build a series of outdoor shrines in Europe to duplicate their counterparts in the Holy Land. The number of stations varied; seven was common. These were usually placed, often in small buildings, along the approach to a church. A number of rural examples were established as attractions in their own right, usually on attractive wooded hills.
In 1686, in answer to their petition, Pope Innocent XI granted to the Franciscans the right to erect stations within their churches. In 1731, Pope Clement XII extended to all churches the right to have the stations, provided that a Franciscan father erected them, with the consent of the local bishop. One friar, St. Leonard of Port Maurice, expressed his zeal by erecting 571 sets of stations between 1731 and 1751, becoming known as the “preacher of the way of the cross.” It is likely he was also responsible for reversing the order of the stations so that they ended at Calvary rather than at Pilate’s house. At the same time the number was fixed at fourteen. In 1862 this right was extended to bishops throughout the church – and the Stations of the Cross became a permanent and universal part of our Lenten prayers in commemoration of Christ’s passion, death, and burial.