Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Old rituals, new revelations


Each year, the Stations of the Cross liturgy affects me more than I had planned. Annually, I am left wondering: why does this ritual work?

Well, it has much to offer: a narrative with exposition, climax and denouement; characters big and small; blood, gore, politics, virtue, cowardice and a pointer towards mystery. Who and what rolled back the stone? Where is He?

Most Catholics surely understood Pope Francis’ withdrawal from the Colisseum version this year. Undoubtedly it is exhausting but I’ll bet even he might have missed its dose of unexpected power.

Every year, something different hits me, despite its familiarity. I can virtually recite much of it. This year, the role of women left its mark. They observed the gathering horror in their groups, they faithfully stayed -in-place throughout the Jerusalem turmoil, and several took the risk to remain right by the cross till Christ died.

And there was more to this whole ritual, I realised on reflection. It is a good, hybrid form: an effective display of traditional Church practice delivering pretty well to a 21st century field hospital of pilgrims.

Both prosaic and cerebral, it really is a small conundrum. There’s that repetitive physicality to it all – kneel, stand, sing, kneel, stand, sing, repeat fourteen times! Also rosary-like optics – the Our Father followed by the Hail Mary and even the Glory Be, when else do I say that these days? – are rolled out sequentially in a way that becomes vaguely mesmerising. Where else does this happen in post-Vatican Two Church?

Not that I’m seeking a return to more of this tone, no thank you. I like the feel of the 21st century. It was on splendid display at a subsequent 9am children’s Easter Sunday Mass, replete with balloons strung over the altar that were  offered to children at the end, and fabulous young cantors introducing the prayers. Maybe the presiding priest was right about the ‘controlled chaos’ brought by the huge crowd. But the overwhelming experience was exuberance that was worthy of bottling – abundant life everywhere.

Back to the Stations. It packs so much into its modest form. My fellow parishioners turned up in very good numbers at 10am and had fulfilled their obligation by 10.42am. As the saying goes, you could have heard a pin drop: that is, there was full, thoughtful attention.

I’ve even had the privilege of walking the real thing in Jerusalem some years back. Can one ever fully absorb the power of seeing those immortal words, Via Dolorosa, in real life or experiencing the Garden of Gethsemane, with that venerable old tree? I doubt it.

But this more humble, transposed version in suburban Sydney – handed down by Franciscans to needy Europeans in probably the 17th century – conferred equivalent meaning to me.

However the words chosen to accompany the ritual, do matter hugely. Last year at my parish, the readings used by the lay reader were excessively emotional and distracting to my ears, harking back to another era. This year, the reflection was moving and appropriate to contemporary consciences. The congregation’s response backed this up.

The Stabat Mater Dolorosa’s dirge-like sonority always challenges me a bit. The rhythm can be so slow, my frustrating trigger-point. Again though I am struck by the emotionality and sensuality within the hymn: body, spirit and expressiveness in equal measure, without apology. One example is stanza seven: ‘Christ she saw, with life-blood failing, All her anguish unavailing, Saw him breathe his very last’.

But it was the conclusion, sending us off to that somewhat liminal pre-3pm stage, that has stayed with me.

‘So seek Me not in far-off places. I am close at hand. Your workbench, office, kitchen, these are altars where you offer love, and I am with you there. Go now! Take up your cross and with your life, complete your way.’





Geraldine Doogue AO is a renowned Australian journalist and broadcaster with experience in print, television and radio. She hosts Saturday Extra with ABC Radio National.

Topic tags: Geraldine Doogue, Easter, Church, Stations of the Cross



submit a comment

Existing comments

You essentially ask, Geraldine, where else in the post Vatican II Church does any other liturgy move us with so much emotion towards our God as does the ritual of the commemoration of Christ's passion in the Easter rituals. I beg to suggest that such emotive liturgy no longer exists elsewhere in the present day Church which progressively since Vatican II has obliterated the sacred liturgy and in so doing has removed almost all that once elevated the people towards their God - the very purpose of liturgy. It is interesting that people attend the Good Friday rituals in far greater numbers than attend the most important ritual of Christianity, the Eucharist , on any other day of the year. And yet, the Eucharist marks the very beginning of Christ's passion in his final supper with his committed followers, the origin of Christianity's signature. Vatican II - a catastrophe wherein the human has replaced the divine and the profane the sacred

John Frawley | 04 April 2024  

Doogue's eloquence bears all the hallmarks of an updated privatised soliloquy emerging out of a devotional landscape that plays no part in the Christian project to live Jesus' witness in the world, reflecting the pious excesses of Jansenism that kicked in to atone for the clean-up of the Reformation.

Thus, the 'Stations' took hold in those parts of the world, such as Ireland, pre-Industrial Spain and Italy and, more recently, in various parts of what used to be called The Third World, in which modernism and socially-progressive reform, born of improvements that consolidated democracy, free speech, peace and economic stability emerging from the intervention of the state, gradually remove the more egregiously harmful effects of lives that are, in Hobbesian terms, 'solitary, nasty, brutish and short'.

While there is no denying that the material wherewithal accompanying so much of modern living cannot bring absolute comfort to the soul, we are offered in Pope Francis' spirituality a much healthier and less individualistic focus on personal piety and cleansing at the expense of the common good.

Indeed, the Franciscans themselves commemorate a 'Via Crucis' that, far from focusing on a hapless past, looks to a future that activates responsibility for the Cosmos.

Michael Furtado | 07 April 2024  

I think what you had at the particular Stations of the Cross you describe was a transformative experience, Geraldine. Christianity is supposed to transform you and raise you up. The Orthodox describe the Eucharist as 'The Medicine of Immortality' where Heaven and Earth meet. Some Catholics and many Anglicans seem to have lost the feeling of numinosity within religion, which is very, very sad. I remember, years ago, in a beautiful old stone church in Melbourne witnessing Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, which took my breath away. Everything: the light, the monstrance and the solemnity added to the occasion. It took me out of myself.

Edward Fido | 09 April 2024  

Benediction, Edward, another great tragic loss of sacred liturgy. In my pre-Vat II parish, Benediction was a twice weekly event. Since Vat II, despite continuing to be a regular practitioner I can't recall a single celebration of Benediction since the great enlightenment Vat II proclaimed. I presume it still does exist in some places but I can guarantee that in my experience of 7 children and 18 grandchildren educated in Catholic schools, none of them have any idea what Benediction is and have never experienced it. Catastrophic renewal in the wake of Vat II.

John Frawley | 10 April 2024  

I think, John F, many, our age and younger, would see us lamenting a past Golden Age, which seems to have been followed by a complete demystification of all that Christianity has held sacred since its beginning. I find that transition terribly sad. The numinous seems to have been replaced with endless chatter about trivial matters which have no relevance to salvation. I think genuine religion will make a comeback. It is desperately needed. What else is there? Superstition and the Occult, which so many lost souls put their trust in. That is another, but associated and relevant topic.

Edward Fido | 12 April 2024  

Similar Articles

Flowers for Father Rahner

  • John Honner
  • 02 April 2024

Karl Rahner, a Jesuit priest whose ideas helped modernize the Church, left an indelible legacy on contemporary Catholicism. On the 40th anniversary of his death, what can a flower left at his niche tell us about the lasting bonds between belief, memory, and the enduring search for human connection?


Palm Sunday protests and the pursuit of peace

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 27 March 2024

Palm Sunday stands at the intersection of the world of justice and goodness and the brutal political realities in human societies. It mocks the pretensions of power that considers only the expediency of actions and not the human reality of the people affected by them. At that intersection today, refugees lie in the centre.