The devotion of meditating on the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ by making the Stations of the Cross is a centuries-old tradition.
Sometimes described as a “miniature pilgrimage” to Jerusalem’s holy sites along the Way of the Cross, the deeply prayerful devotion began in the Holy Land, then spread to other places over the centuries. In 1731, Pope Clement XII set the number of stations at 14. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV urged the 14 stations to be installed in all churches.
The faithful can even follow Christ along the Via Crucis at outdoor shrines.
San Luis, Colo., a small town of less than a thousand residents, is home to the Stations of the Cross Shrine. The stations are situated on a mesa in the center of town and so are a focal point for the entire community.
San Luis seems such a fitting place for this outdoor Way of the Cross, one of the oldest devotions in the Church, because it is known as the oldest town in Colorado. A two-hour drive from Pueblo, it sits in the fertile plains of the San Luis Valley, with breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains eastward and the San Juan Mountains westward.
Central to this beauty are the Stations of the Cross, which reflect the town’s strong religious heritage. They draw residents and visitors for prayer and meditation along a nearly mile-long trail rising to the top of the mesa. At the summit there is the grotto of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a beautiful adobe chapel. It is a fitting place of prayer for La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia (Hill of Piety and Mercy).
The bronze stations are the work of internationally known sculptor Huberto Maestas, a San Luis native.
“They are very powerful, very expressive, very emotional,” says Father Patrick Valdez. The stations were developed during his long tenure as pastor of the town’s Sangre de Cristo Parish, whose parishioners built this magnificent shrine.
“All the stations were bought by local families, and they sacrificed a lot to pay for them,” the priest said. “The stations come from this community of Spanish-Catholic expression; of love of the Lord through the Passion,” he explained, observing the devotion’s roots go back to the old Hispanic penitentes, men who during Lent prayed and meditated on the passion of Christ.
The year after the stations were dedicated in 1990, Father Valdez, with many parishioners, made a pilgrimage to Rome. There they presented Pope John Paul II with models of the stations made by the sculptor which became part of the Vatican Museums’ collection.
The San Luis Stations inspire prayer and reflection by locals and visitors alike.
“A lot of healing miracles and reconciliations have occurred right there,” said Father Valdez, now pastor of St. Mary Margaret in Cortez, Colo. He remembers how a troubled man saw the chapel on the mesa and took the trail up there past the stations. “By the time he got to the Crucifixion [station] he had a tremendous conversion and then would come back periodically to thank God,” Father Valdez recalled.
Father Valdez also remembers how “other families became reconciled. It’s a place of prayer. Families make this part of their yearly pilgrimage to thank God for favors (and more).”
Across the country at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., the new outdoor Stations of the Cross are almost all in place, with a few remaining ones scheduled for placement this summer.
The 14 stations begin outside the shrine, wind through the wooded fields, then end at the shrine to show pilgrims the connection between Christ’s suffering and his mercy.
“Our emphasis is St. Faustina’s Way of the Cross, whereby we take quotes from Scripture as well as from the Diary (of St. Faustina) to provide a deeper insight into the paschal mystery as we meditate on the stations,” explained Father Kazimierz Chwalek, provincial superior for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in the United States.
Pilgrims making the stations recall Jesus died for us at the 3 o’clock hour, the hour of great mercy. He counseled Faustina to pray the stations during this time — “My daughter, try your best to make the Stations of the Cross in this hour, provided that your duties permit it” (Diary); he also stated, as she recorded in the Diary, “You please me most when you meditate on my sorrowful passion.”
“The stations are not an extrinsic element,” said Father Chwalek, “but are at the very heart of the devotion to the Divine Mercy.”
Pilgrims are reminded of this connection as they contemplate Jesus’ steps to Calvary and see the pain and suffering captured in the bronze statues. The face of Jesus begins with serene features, then, at each new station, reflects an ever-increasing suffering. It’s as if the sculptor captured both his love and suffering together.
The Marians had planned for these stations to be built back in the 1990s and hoped the Lord would send someone to help. Around the shrine’s 50th anniversary in 2010, benefactors helped initiate the project. Soon after, Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz began the one-of-a-kind statues he describes as “visual prayers.”
“People need visuals. They need to see,” explained Father Chwalek. “Having life-sized statues to meditate upon draws the mind and heart into a human experience, a human event. Great art speaks directly to our hearts. It evokes within us emotions, especially of compassion for the one who died and suffered so much, and a deeper appreciation of how much the Lord had to bear on our behalf.
“It ultimately leads us to love of him, trust in him, who bore the heavy cross so that we might have life and freedom and eternal joy.”
As the faithful pray the Stations of the Cross this Lent or at any other time of year, may we recall the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy): “The cross is like a touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man’s earthly existence. … It is in the cross that the revelation of merciful love attains its culmination.”
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.