The Stations of the Cross follow the path of Christ from Pontius Pilate's praetorium to Christ's tomb known as the "Via Dolorosa" (Sorrowful Way). This devotion has evolved over time. Tradition holds that our Blessed Mother visited daily the scenes of our Lord's passion. After Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 312, this pathway was marked with its important stations. St. Jerome (342-420), living in Bethlehem during the later part of his life, attested to the crowds of pilgrims from various countries who visited those holy places and followed the Way of the Cross.
In the fifth century, an interest developed in the Church to "reproduce" the holy places in other areas so pilgrims who could not actually travel to the Holy Land could do so.
In 1342, the Franciscans were appointed as guardians of the shrines of the Holy Land. The faithful received indulgences for praying at the following stations: At Pilate's house, where Christ met His mother, where He spoke to the women, where He met Simon of Cyrene, where the soldiers stripped Him of His garments, where He was nailed to the cross, and at His tomb.
William Wey, an English pilgrim, visited the Holy Land in 1462, and is credited with the term "stations". He described the manner in which a pilgrim followed the steps of Christ. Prior to this time, the path usually followed the reverse course of ours today moving from Mount Calvary to Pilate's house.
When the Muslim Turks blocked the access to the Holy Land, reproductions of the stations were erected at popular spiritual centers around Europe.
In the 1500s, the number of the stations varied. William Wey's account has 14 stations, but only five correspond to the modern day Stations. Some versions included the house of Dives (the rich man in the Lazarus story), the city gate through which Christ passed, and the houses of Herod and Simon the Pharisee. In 1584 a book written by Adrichomius described 12 stations which match those in our present version.
At the end of the 17th century, the erection of stations in churches became more popular. In 1686, Pope Innocent XI, realizing that few people could travel to the Holy Land due to the Muslim oppression, granted the right to erect stations in all of their churches and that the same indulgences would be given to the Franciscans and those affiliated with them for practicing the devotion as if on an actual pilgrimage. Pope Benedict XIII extended these indulgences to all of the faithful in 1726.
Five years later, Pope Clement XII permitted stations to be created in all churches and fixed the number at 14. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV exhorted all priests to enrich their churches with the Way of the Cross, which must include 14 crosses and are usually accompanied with pictures or images of each particular station. The popularity of the devotion was also encouraged by preachers like St. Leonard Casanova (1676-1751) of Porto Maurizio, Italy, who reportedly erected over 600 sets of stations throughout Italy.
Currently there are 14 traditional stations:
-Pilate condemns Christ to death.
-Jesus carries the cross.
-The first fall.
-Jesus meets His Blessed Mother.
-Simon of Cyrene helps to carry the cross.
-Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
-The second fall.
-Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem.
-The third fall.
-Jesus is stripped of His garments.
-Jesus is nailed to the cross.
-Jesus dies on the cross.
-Jesus is taken down from the cross.
-Jesus is laid in the tomb.
Because of the intrinsic relationship between the passion and death of our Lord with His resurrection, several of the devotional booklets now include a 15th station, which commemorates the Resurrection. A plenary indulgence is granted for those who piously exercise the Way of the Cross, actually moving from station to station where they are legitimately erected and while mediating on the passion and death of our Lord ("Enchiridion of Indulgences," No. 63).
Those who are impeded from visiting a church may gain the same indulgence by piously reading and meditating on the passion and death of our Lord for one-half hour.
Information derived from EWTN.com