QUAERITUR: Stations of the Cross – photos of poor people, not the Lord

From a reader:

While on a college visit in Virginia, my son and I visited the Campus Catholic Ministry and noticed the room that was used for Mass had “Stations of the Cross” around the periphery.  I use quotes because rather than having the traditional relief/pictured depictions of our Lord’s passion, there were instead photographs of impoverished people (mainly African or Asian) with a caption under each. For instance, the tenth station (Jesus is stripped of his garments) shows an African wearing ragged clothes.  The entire collection has no image of Christ, but of various 3rd world scenes.

I suppose the purpose is to direct our attention to the needs of our less fortunate, but doesn’t this take away from our true devotion?  Sacramentals are such an important part of our faith, it seems a shame that some can change them to suit their wants, instead of the desires of the Church.  This practice is reminiscent of the “touchdown Jesus” one sees in many modern Catholic churches. 

Is there anything codified for the proper display of statues, images, etc?  I’d like to discuss this with the pastor, but would like to know if there’s any rules being broken.

First, Stations of the Cross must be "erected" by the proper authority, usually the diocesan bishop or his delegate.

The Enchiridion Indulgentiarum speaks of the images as those of the "stations" of the way in Jersusalem.


I believe there can be only numbers as well.

But if you have images that are not of the Lord’s way?

You might write a letter to the local bishop if you see such a thing or, if that produces no answer, to the both the Sacra Penitenzieria Apostolica and the Congregation for Divine Worship.

That just doesn’t sound right to me.

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  1. Salvatore Giuseppe says:

    Based on the description, I think I saw the exact same pictures at a retreat center in Pennsylvania. Only there, thankfully, they simply lined a hallway, not a chapel. They did seem kinda strange, and didn’t do anything to help meditate on Jesus’ passion.

  2. Fr. Charles says:

    This sort of thing is very common in the type of religious life I have been raised in. It can be a good-hearted way of trying to produce a reflection on the ongoing suffering of Christ in suffering humanity. After all, is not the Passion an identification with the misery we human beings have deserved and inflicted one each other with our sins?

    On the other hand, this sort of reflection doesn’t happen out of nowhere; it derives from a meditation on the Lord’s Passion, which is why actual images of the way of the Cross serve better. This sounds like many well-meaning but ultimately violent ministers of the Lord who want to force people into a particular meditation on the mysteries of faith, without giving the Spirit the freedom to direct individual souls Himself.

  3. Fr. Charles says:

    P.s. And to think, the blessing of new Stations used to be a privilege of us Franciscans!

  4. Isn’t there also a requirement that each Station contain a cross made of wood?

    I once went to a Stations of the Cross sponsored by some “peace and justice”-type committee. When I saw read the handout, and that the meditations consisted in lectures on homelessness, Vietnam, and the Kent State incident, I walked out. Why couldn’t we just do Stations of the Cross?

    For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 1 Corinthians 2:2.

  5. bob says:


    I agree that in a Church or Chapel, or any space regularly used for Mass, the stations of the cross should indeed be traditional. In my son’s school however (in an area which is not a chapel and not used for Mass) they have some beautiful reflections on the various stations which focus on issues like poverty as described above. As well as Abortion, belief, praise, and other useful issues. I know my son finds this a fantastic way to reflect and it helps him to put his faith into practice. It helps him to understand that the reason why we oppose Abortion, for instance, is because a heavy price was paid for us, and therefore life has immense value.

    As long as Mass, or the space used for Mass, remains untouched, and as long as the traditional practice of the stations is properly understood, surely there is nothing wrong with using the stations to help us reflect on putting our faith into action, right?

  6. CDN_Canonist says:

    Stations of the cross must consist, at the very least, of fourteen wooden crosses, erected by the competent ecclesiastical authority. Although these crosses are often accompanied by images of the Lord for reasons of devotion, these are not required.

    These norms are specified in the Enchiridion indulgentiarum and are requirements for obtaining the attached plenary indulgence.

  7. The psychology which these people have regarding images and words which structure these devotions seems to be as follows:
    -People are real and Jesus isn’t
    -Painted images don’t do justice to the mystery of God; we need something more tangible that we can believe
    -We need to relate to everyone
    -We need to embrace all cultures

    In sum, I get the sense of a false sense of reality, the gist of which is the idea that people can’t relate to a God who is mysterious. While it is true that painted images do not capture the entire mystery of God, they point us to it. Suggesting that real pictures of people are more adequate in portraying the humanity of Jesus is a big mistake. Those people aren’t Jesus; Jesus is Jesus.
    It is so deeply rooted in Catholic spirituality that we are to see Jesus in te poor. We should not need to display this explicitly in the context of devotion; rather, this element of our spirituality should already be integrated into our daily lives that we don’t need to modify our devotions to get the point across.

  8. LCB says:

    I’m surprised, Fr. Z, that you haven’t heard of this before.

    This is pretty standard. I’ve been in Cathedrals that have this. [For example?]

    The liberal hermeneutic of discontinuity demands that the New Church not have any reference to Jesus. All references must be only to us, the ultimate object of worship.

  9. Charles says:

    Ah! The life giving initiatives of the local Justice and Peace committee! How would we ever be relevant without their piercing insights into the systemic evils afflicting society? I am reminded of the Good Friday public stations of the cross sponsored by my diocese. Read, reflect, be open and change your hearts! If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts! http://www.saskatoonrcdiocese.com/social_justice/documents/Reflections%20and%20Prayers%20%2008.pdf

  10. Constance says:

    Maybe the idea is to see Jesus in the poor…

    “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

  11. Cathy says:

    A side note:

    “Touchdown Jesus” (at least, the only one I know of, the one at Notre Dame) does not even compare with Stations depicting mere humans instead of the Passion of Christ.

    “Touchdown Jesus” might have an irreverent name, but the image itself is a very nice one of the Risen Christ. It is in no way an irreverent image itself.

  12. Denise says:

    Last year the Episcopalians celebrated Stations of the MDG’s (Millennium Development Goals) instead of Stations of the Cross during Lent.

  13. Dennis says:

    When I was in grade school back in the 60’s we had stations of the cross booklets with those images in it. Now where I teach ccd, the hall is lined with posters of the stations of the plight of suffering peoples instead of the traditional stations.

  14. DJY says:

    I was not aware, before, of the requirement for the stations to be erected by a competent authority. This would make sense given the indulgences attached and the uncertainty such things could lead to.

    Does this requirement only pertain to stations within a church proper, and is it typically done as part of the building’s consecration?

    (It’s the little things in Catholicism that make me smile…)

  15. booklover says:

    Fr Charles,
    When did the Franciscans lose their privilege of blessing new Stations? I thought it was still in effect.

  16. cathomommy says:

    “Just as the Cross liberates us from sin, literacy liberates the poor from inequities.” (from the link in Charles’ comment, the Way of the Cross from the Diocese of Saskatoon.) This may be the single most ridiculous, irreverent, and most completely-missing-the-point statement I have ever read!!

  17. Maureen says:

    Well, it’s not entirely wrong. Teaching the ignorant is one of the Works of Mercy, isn’t it? But yes, it’s dangerous to use hyperbole when comparing stuff to things Our Lord did.

    Re: images of the suffering poor —

    Why can’t they have a regular picture of Our Lord _and_ the parallel pictures? That wouldn’t be bad, and it would be less confusing.

  18. Megan says:

    Is this a college trend? When I was converting to Catholocism back in college (2005), the campus Catholic Church too showed depictions of impoverished people. I was confused then and was wondering what these pictures represented at the time.
    In other words, this can be confusing to understand that these are to represent the stations of the cross.

  19. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Bad art is destructive on so many levels.

    And we wonder why generations of Catholics don’t know the basic basic basic tenets of the Faith. Can those who have only seen this kind of stations name the venerable 14 Stations of the Cross?

    One of religious art’s purpose is to teach. This came in handy in the old large cathedrals frequented by the illiterate as they gazed upon pictorial explanations of the Faith. Today we still have the illiterate [in Faith] with the added absence of real teaching from good art.

    Seems like the entire span of the Catholic Church is now mission territory, so few know their Faith, so few places to find the information.

  20. Charles says:

    “Re: images of the suffering poor—
    Why can’t they have a regular picture of Our Lord and the parallel pictures? That wouldn’t be bad, and it would be less confusing.”

    Because solidarity with the poor is not the point of the stations of the cross.

  21. Martin T. says:

    Interesting point. For the pictures of the poor to work it presumes you are already familiar with the traditional stations.

  22. In the Newman Center of where I go to school there are these stations that we’re talking about here.

    I’ve never really liked them…

  23. Joe Marier says:

    It’s a Maryknoll thing. You’ll find the poster set at http://www.maryknollmall.org/description2.cfm?ISBN=10602

  24. Fr. Charles says:

    Booklover: I think that most previously reserved blessings, e.g. Carmelites for Brown Scapulars, Franciscans for Stations, Dominicans for Dominican rosaries, etc., are now given generally to any ordained minister. Correct me if I’m wrong WDTPRSers, because I don’t know this for sure!

  25. booklover says:

    Thank you, Fr Charles. I have no doubt that you’re correct, although I obviously missed the memo! One understands changes like these on a practical level, and yet I think they are a mistake. Just as no longer requiring Friday abstinence undermines Catholic identity, removing privileges like these undermines the identities of various sub-divisions in the Church, such as the Franciscans. What a shame.

  26. I’m sympathetic to the idea of meditating on Jesus in the poor. Why not
    post the pictures of the suffering UNDER the stations of the cross? That
    would hammer the point home while still providing the appropriate focal point
    for adoration and mediation.

  27. MargaretMN says:

    When I was in grade school in the 1970s, we had weekly stations of the cross booklets that had poor people in various perilous situations (girl whose village had been bombed, poor kids from the ghetto in a school bus accident, etc.) One for each station. I believe it was also a Maryknoll publication. So this seems to be a longstanding tradition.

  28. supertradmom says:

    Not new, sadly. In high school and in Catholic college, our station booklets were called something like “The Social Stations of the Cross” and I think were connected to the Catholic Worker Movement artist and writers. This was in the late sixties and early seventies. I think these were attempts to tie in the suffering of people with the suffering of Christ. I never liked this type of presentation of the Stations, as it seemed to be a backwards way of looking at the Passion of Christ. He died for us and took on our suffering. Bad theology underlines this people-centered stations.

  29. Agnes says:

    Bl. Teresa of Calcutta saw the face of Christ in the poorest of the poor. Offering our suffering and alleviating (as much as possible) the suffering around us is a major part of what we’re about as Catholics. But being given a holy whapping over the head with images of human suffering is exploitive in this context. Not only does it not have a place on the walls of a church, but it attacks our sense – don’t you think I’m aware of starvation and homelessness? Even if I were not, maybe the considerable funds used to make these so-called Stations could be put to better use. The walls of a church are not advertising billboards, no matter how worthy the cause, and the traditional artwork is important in keeping us focused on Christ’s Passion.

  30. T. O' Donnell says:

    [From memory] I read on an internet site a year or so ago that the Stations of The Cross Indulgence was granted to the Franciscans because they couldn’t go to Jerusalem and get the indulgence attached to the original Stations. Can’t find it now, but this one gives some details:


    As another poster mentioned, the article I read said that the Cross is the station, and it has to be wood. Also, they were traditionally instituted(?) by a Franciscan, as it was their order that had the original Indulgence.

    The pictures aren’t essential. The crosses are. I am perturbed when I find stations with crosses missing.

    [My opinion] There seems to be an attempt, nowadays, to serve Man more than God by emphasising ‘social justice issues’ over the worship due to God, first. God first, Man second, I say. The second follows from the first. If you get bogged down in charitable works you might forget He from whom all good things come, and get sidetracked. If you give Him the worship due Him, charitable thoughts and works will follow from it.

  31. Andy F. says:

    When I started teaching two years ago, there was a set of these stations on poster paper made by a particular religious order that rhymes with Maryknoll. I saw to it that they disappeared so we could get new ones.

  32. David says:

    Got a similar pamphlet in the mail from Food for the Poor this past Lent. I think it is well-intentioned to try to suggest that we see Christ in the poor, but as someone stated, this is best done as the fruit of meditation on the actual sufferings of Christ, not with the poor as the direct substitutes in the devotion.

  33. AJP says:

    This sort of imagery has its place (such as a classroom, or a hunger relief
    charity’s promotions). But a church or chapel is not the place for this
    sort of thing. It’s unecessary too. I’ve attended various stations of the
    cross that were more or less traditional in nature and many of the prayers
    at each station made mention of how Christ’s Passion relates to the
    sufferings of the poor today. There were specific mentions of those who lack
    clothing, food and water, and those in prison at the relevant stations.

    The other thing that bugs me about this is when it becomes apparent what
    groups are behind these photo stations. Generally groups that are not known
    for orthodoxy (such as Maryknoll) and also have a reputation for a highly
    politicized leftist approach to issues of poverty and war. For those of us
    who can figure this out (and I think more and more Catholics are wising up
    to the “social justice” crowd), these kinds of stations have the opposite
    effect. If I were to see one of these photo stations of the cross, my first
    thought would not be “Christ is present in a special way in my suffering
    brothers and sisters” but rather “what kind of liberation theology stuff is
    this and what other Marxist garbage can I expect, especially during Mass

  34. irishgirl says:

    When I worked in a Catholic bookstore-the owner is an ND grad, but a CTA liberal-there were these ‘Every Person’s Stations of the Cross’ booklets (originally called ‘Everyman’). I think they were put out by Orbis Books, the publishing arm of Maryknoll. These had black-and-white photos of poor people instead of the ‘traditional’ Stations pictures.

    Never seen church stations with the ‘social gospel’ motif…but for many years on Good Friday a group of people from Pax Christi and similiar 1960s-mentality organization would do a so-called ‘Living Way of the Cross’ in the downtown section of my city.

    Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid….

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