Virtual Pilgrims

Last month, Jim Martin, S.J., went with a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land and invited others to be virtual pilgrims with him on the journey. Seeing Martin's virtual pilgrimage brought to mind the very invention of the Stations of the Cross.

As a devotional practice, the Stations began as a pilgrimage in Jerusalem, going from site to site, marking the way of the cross. Rather quickly, however, there was an instinct to offer Christians the opportunity to be virtual pilgrims of the way. For instance, Bologna’s fifth century Saint Stefano’s linked together a series of chapels, beginning with the courtyard of Pilate and ending at the Holy Sepulcher.

In the fifteenth century Christians, unable to travel to the Holy Land, were offered opportunities of a visual though “constructed” experience of following in the footsteps of Jesus as he went to his death. For instance, Dominicans at a friary in Cordova built a series of chapels, each painted with a principal scene of the passion and death of Jesus.  Entering the first chapel, pilgrims entered Pilate’s House; entering the last one, they stood before the tomb.

The Poor Clares did the same in Messina. Others built them in Görlitz and at Nuremberg. In the early sixteenth century, these were reproduced elsewhere, notably at Louvain, Bamberg, Fribourg, and Rhodes.  Moreover, since Jerusalem had fallen under the Ottoman Empire, these practices of walking the way of the cross commonly occurred not in Jerusalem, but in Europe. There, Christians developed accompanying prayers and meditations for the devotional procession of the Stations of the Cross.

By the end of the eighteenth century, this devotional practice became a mainstay in parish life. First, in 1686, the Franciscans, long time governors of the Christian sites in Jerusalem, received from the pope the right to erect the Stations in all their churches throughout the world. He also granted to the Franciscans who walked the Stations in whatever place the same indulgences as those who walked the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. In 1726, the indulgences were granted to all Christians who did the devotional exercise and in 1742 all priests were exhorted to establish the Stations in their churches.

This practice of bringing Jerusalem to the pilgrim instead of the pilgrim to Jerusalem should not be missed. To his credit, Jim Martin follows in significant footsteps, capturing a long-standing practice and making it all the more real for the 21st century.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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