On Good Friday, March 25, following the 3 p.m. Liturgy of the Passion at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the 10th annual Via Crucis — Way of the Cross — will commence in the Cathedral Plaza. Sponsored by the Communion and Liberation lay movement, the Via Crucis has been associated with the cathedral for seven years.

Comprising four stations, the procession will head from the cathedral through downtown Los Angeles, to the historic La Placita Church on Olvera Street, before returning to the cathedral. During the one-plus hour Via Crucis, readings from Scripture, hymns, reflections and meditations will be offered at each station.

T. J. Berden, a representative of the Communion and Liberation, explains, “Especially in this Year of Mercy, we see the procession as a vitally important gesture in our own lives as we recall the mercies received by everyone united by Christ’s death. It also signifies the mercy and love Jesus offers all citizens of Los Angeles.”

Because Good Friday falls on March 25 this year, the Solemnity of the Annunciation — ordinarily celebrated on that date — is transferred to April 4. In the early Church, however, both events were believed to have occurred on March 25.

The crucifixion as a historical event is at the core of Christian belief. Tertullian, the austere Christian apologist of the late 2nd century, merely repeated common belief when he asserted that Jesus was conceived and crucified on March 25.

Many writers, Christian and pagan, believed that great men lived such perfectly framed lives. This is the genesis of the Church’s liturgical celebrations of the Annunciation and the Passion.

Scriptural, historical and astronomical data have long since disproved Tertullian’s dating. Jesus very likely died on April 3, A.D. 33, as has been persuasively demonstrated by the University of Oxford. 

Christ’s redemptive sacrifice has always held a hallowed fascination for Christians. Indeed, a pious tradition claims that, following Pentecost, the Virgin Mary daily visited the places of her son’s condemnation and death.

We’re on firmer historical ground with St. Jerome. Writing from Bethlehem, he describes throngs of Christians drawn to the holy sites in √Ülia Capitolina — the name Emperor Hadrian (√Ülius Hadrianus) gave Jerusalem after conquering the city in 135. Even now, on any day of the week, pilgrims carry crosses along Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, “The Way of Sorrow.”

During the fifth century, the Way of the Cross achieved official devotional status when St. Petronius, Bishop of Bologna, built a group of small chapels depicting several of what we know today as “Stations” of the Cross, although that designation came later.

The number of stops along the Way of the Cross has fluctuated over the years. In 1342, when the Franciscans were appointed guardians of the shrines of the Holy Land, special indulgences were approved for pilgrims pausing to pray:

> At Pilate’s house;

> Where Jesus met his mother;

> Where He spoke to the women of Jerusalem;

> Where Simon of Cyrene helped carry the Cross;

> Where the soldiers stripped Jesus of his garments;

> Where Christ was nailed to the cross and;

> At Christ’s tomb within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In 1462, the English pilgrim William Wey published a booklet describing 14 locations in Jerusalem where believers paused to meditate on Christ’s sufferings. Only five match those usually seen in churches today. Wey’s booklet gave currency to the name “Stations of the Cross” (Latin: statio = “stopping place”).

According to Father William Saunders: “When the [Muslim] Turks blocked access to the Holy Land, reproductions of the stations were erected at popular spiritual centers.” He lists a number of locations in Italy, Germany, Belgium and Rhodes, then continues, “By 1587 … the [Muslims] forbade anyone to make any halt, nor to pay veneration to [the stations] with uncovered head, nor to make any other demonstration” (Arlington Catholic Herald, March 10, 1994). 

In 1686, with ongoing Islamic harassment endangering Holy Land pilgrims, Pope Innocent XI permitted the Via Crucis to be installed in all Franciscan churches, with the same indulgences obtained as if the friars were actually on pilgrimage.

The devotion blossomed in the 18th century. In 1726, Benedict XIII extended the indulgences to all who symbolically followed Jesus to Calvary in Franciscan churches. In 1731, Clement XII permitted all churches to display the Stations and fixed their number at 14. In 1742, Benedict XIV further encouraged pastors throughout the world to place the Via Crucis in their churches. Every pope since has urged the faithful to participate in the Stations.

“The Handbook for Indulgences” issued by the Holy See states that each station must display a cross. These crosses were required to be made of wood, but that rule seems no longer to apply. Even so, the cross is the station, not the artwork.

The handbook allows some latitude regarding number and kinds of mysteries considered, as approved by local bishops. In 1991, Pope St. John Paul II introduced a Scriptural Via Crucis.

Today the Way of the Cross is the Church’s most richly indulgenced act of devotional piety. To gain a plenary indulgence, an individual must progress along the Via Crucis, meditating upon each of the Stations. If participating in a public event only the leader, or servers with cross and candles, need move from station to station.

Several booklets contain approved meditations. Those by St. Alphonsus de Ligouri and Blessed John Henry Newman come to mind. The handbook prescribes vocal prayer to accompany meditation, possibly consisting of an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, or, simply, “Lord Jesus crucified, have mercy on us.” 

A plenary indulgence can be obtained by making the Via Crucis on Good Friday, even if only participating with the Holy Father leading the devotion on television. 

Persons unable to make the Stations at their parish can still gain the indulgence by spending at least one half hour meditating on the passion and death of the Lord.