One of the most dramatic and fervent practices in the Spanish community at St. Patrick Parish in Norristown is the live Stations of the Cross, or “la Via Crucis” that occurs on Good Friday. Unlike other Stations of the Cross, at St. Patrick we begin in the parking lot at dusk with the dramatization of Jesus instituting the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper with his apostles and ending with Jesus being crucified and taken down from the cross on Good Friday.
This practice mirrors the many live Stations of the Cross that occur in little towns throughout Mexico and other places in Latin America.
The reverent devotion to the cross is closely connected to the play representing specific scenes of the Passion of Christ. This special form of piety has a distinct history and has evolved over time. Tradition holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary daily visited the sites of our Lord’s passion after his crucifixion and death. At first, the Way of the Cross was essentially a miniature pilgrimage to the holy places at Jerusalem as Mary walked them. After Constantine legalized Christianity in 312, this same path was officially marked with important sites of the Passion of Christ.
St. Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem, confirmed that crowds of pilgrims from various nations, who visited the Holy Land, faithfully followed the Way of the Cross. This devotion grew popular throughout the world and in the fifth century the church began creating holy places in other areas so pilgrims, who could not travel to the Holy Land, could do so in a spiritual way in their hearts.
For example, St. Petronius constructed a group of connecting chapels at the monastery of San Stefano in Bologna, which exemplified the important shrines in the Holy Land. As a result this monastery became known as “Hierusalem.”
William Wey, an English pilgrim who visited the Holy Land in 1462, is credited for first using the term “stations” in his narrative that described the halting at certain spots to pray along the “Via Sacra.” At that time, the stations followed the reverse course of the Via crucis today, i.e., moving from Calvary to Pilate’s house. Within a few decades the reverse, that is going from Pilate house to Calvary, became fixed and this route became a special exercise in devotion completely in itself.
In the 15th century when Muslim Turks took control of the Holy Land and travel became dangerous, reproductions of the stations were erected at popular spiritual centers throughout the Christian world, such as in Cordoba, Messina, Louvain and even California. By 1587 the traveler and writer Giovanni Zuallardo reported that Muslims did not allow anyone to “make any halt, nor to pay veneration to the stations with uncovered head, nor to make any demonstration.” As a result this religious practice was suppressed in the Holy Land, but the devotion spread throughout Europe and then Latin America.
St. Francis is credited for writing prayers accompanying the Stations of the Cross. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Franciscans began to build a series of outdoor shrines in Europe and in the western part of the United States and Latin America to duplicate the sites in the Holy Land. In 1742 Pope
Clement XII permitted stations to be placed in all churches and fixed the number of stations at fourteen. Eventually Pope Benedict XIV exhorted all pastors to enrich their churches with this great treasure of the stations. Today there are few churches without pictures, paintings or a tableaux of the Stations of the Cross.
On Good Friday this live drama in Norristown is a religious custom that literally helps all of us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. My parishioners, both young and old, practice for weeks learning their roles and honing their acting skills. Costumes are sewn and props are created. Each year men fight to play the coveted role of Jesus.
From this play, in which many parishioners participate and attend, abundant spiritual graces are obtained for all. For the huge number of participants and attendees each year there is an eerie silence throughout the walk around the outside of the church after Jesus is condemned to death and scourged at the pillar. Veronica is on one corner ready to wipe the face of Jesus and then to receive his image on her cloth. Simon of Cyrene stands at another corner waiting to help Jesus carry the cross. Jesus falls numerous times. Mary, his mother, and other women of Jerusalem see the agony of Jesus as he is beaten and humiliated throughout his walk. The final station is in the church where there are three crosses raised in the sanctuary for Jesus and the two thieves.
The play continues as Our Lord is crucified and dies. Then there is veneration of the cross with a relic of the true cross and all, having experienced something very special in their hearts and their faith, leave in silence.
La Via Crucis is a unique experience for all, but especially for the children who learn firsthand about a religious custom with a deep history that strengthens their faith, but also one that comes from their roots in Latin America. Good Friday is a somber and difficult day for many of us, but being together and representing the life and death of Our Lord help us feel some consolation knowing that the resurrection of Christ is coming in three days. Happy Easter!