‘Cities are places of joy and sorrow, of grace and disgrace,’ says the introduction to the liturgy used for Melbourne’s Way of the Cross, which draws thousands each year on Good Friday and Easter morning to follow the path of Christ through the streets of our city.

‘Jerusalem was not much different,’ it tells us, as we are invited to embark on ‘that painful journey’ with Jesus, ‘to pray for our city, ourselves, and our world, remembering that no pain is wasted, no affliction unredeemed that is united with the suffering of Jesus’.

Since the year 2000, Christians of all ages and backgrounds have been gathering on Good Friday morning to walk together through Melbourne’s CBD, following the cross, praying, singing and joining with their brothers and sisters in a remarkable act of Christian witness. An initiative of Melbourne City Churches in Action (MCCIA), the ecumenical walk is intended to help Christians of all traditions to remember and symbolically participate in Jesus’ walk to the cross, and for the churches to engage more fully with the city.

Each year, up to 5,000 people come together in the act of walking, praying and bearing witness to their faith in Jesus.

The late Sr Verna Holyhead SGS—a gifted writer and liturgist, as well as a teacher, lecturer and biblical scholar—initially prepared the simple ecumenical liturgy of readings and prayers that is used for the walk, modelled on the Church’s ancient tradition of praying the Stations of the Cross.

Both the liturgy and the walk quickly became popular with Christians from many denominations and all parts of Melbourne, as well as visitors to Melbourne during Holy Week. Each year, up to 5,000 people come together to walk, pray and bear witness to their faith in Jesus. The free event is designed to make participation easy: no bookings are required, and people of all ages and abilities are welcome to join in for the whole walk or just a part of it.

Each Good Friday, representatives of Melbourne’s city churches take turns to carry a large wooden cross, leading their fellow Christians as they wind their way through the CBD. The ‘Way of the Cross’ is punctuated by a series of 14 striking bronze sculptures designed by local, third-generation sculptor Anna Meszaros. (Interestingly, Anna’s grandfather Andor Meszaros also completed a set of stations of the cross in the form of medallions for Canterbury Cathedral in the United Kingdom.) Anna’s stations tell the story of the journey of Jesus from the Last Supper to the cross, often depicting a scene from an unusual or striking visual perspective.

There is something very meaningful about walking the Way of the Cross in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ during Holy Week.

Mounted on upright slabs of black granite as permanent fixtures, the stations are placed outside churches throughout the city, beginning at one of Melbourne’s oldest churches, St Francis’ Church in Lonsdale Street. The final ‘resurrection’ station is located symbolically over the river at Melbourne’s most recently built church, St John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate.

On Good Friday, walkers gather at 10am at St Francis’ Church to begin their walk though the streets, pausing at the stations for each stage of the liturgy—including Scripture readings, reflections, prayer and hymns—and ending up at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Flinders Street at around 12.15pm. The final stage of the walk resumes at St Paul’s at dawn (6.30am) on Easter Sunday, with walkers welcoming the resurrection by crossing the Yarra River to St John’s Southgate as the sun rises.

While there is something very meaningful about walking the Way of the Cross in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ during Holy Week, the Way can also be walked independently by individuals or smaller groups at any time of the year, using the liturgy available on the MCCIA website.

There is also a video of a ‘virtual walk’ that was prepared during the COVID lockdown, which can be used by anyone who is unable to participate in the physical walk.

Station 6 at St Patricks 2
One of the stations designed by local, third-generation sculptor Anna Meszaros, outside St Patrick’s Cathedral. (Photo courtesy of MCCIA.)

At a time when we are being called to consider more intentionally what it means to be a synodal church, a church that walks together, Fr Denis Stanley, Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, believes there is great value in opportunities such as this, opportunities to walk and pray together with other Christians, particularly on Good Friday.

To know that we’re walking together is very powerful ... We encourage each other in witness when we walk together.

Pointing out that the Second Vatican Council identified ‘spiritual ecumenism’—praying together—as the soul of the ecumenical movement, he says that walks such as Melbourne’s Way of the Cross, and the many smaller ecumenical walks that take place on Good Friday in suburbs throughout Melbourne, represent an opportunity to strengthen Christian unity in a number of significant ways.

‘I think firstly it provides witness, public witness,’ he says. ‘To know that we’re walking together is very powerful—that we’re giving witness to the community around us—but we’re doing that standing together. We encourage each other in witness when we walk together.’

He also believes that participating in ecumenical Stations of the Cross, including all the planning and organisational aspects—preparing the liturgy, printing the booklets, dealing with the local council, allocating hi-vis vests to helpers—enables opportunities for encountering the other. ‘And that’s the only way I think that ecumenism works: personal encounter,’ he says.

Pointing out that encounter is an important word for Pope Francis, Fr Denis describes it as ‘the real engine of ecumenism’.

That’s the only way I think that ecumenism works: personal encounter.

‘So getting out of your lounge chair and walking with others, or doing the work of preparing it—having prepared many myself—working through and preparing and listening, and all that sort of thing, is very important. But also encountering others on the walk, as you walk along. I think that … gives a place for encounter to happen, where Christians meet together.’

As well as witnessing and encountering each other by praying and walking together, Fr Denis believes there is also something very profound in doing these things together on Good Friday, in following not just in the way of Jesus but in the way of the cross.

‘I think ecumenism is carrying the cross. I mean, … when we encounter the other, that’s not easy at times. When you start to talk deeply about each other’s traditions and faith, you have to engage with an other. That can bring a certain amount of the cross into it.

‘You have to listen carefully. There’re some things that might have to die so you can listen properly … It is a cross-like event when you encounter others: something has to die in them; something has to die in me, and we bear the cross together of Jesus.’

This is apparent especially when there are ruptures in relations between traditions that have been sincerely seeking to form a closer relationship.

When these moments of disagreement happen, he says, ‘it is painful because we are so close. So we think, well, what do we do now? We have to carry this cross together of deeper understanding and misunderstanding and all that sort of thing.

It is a cross-like event when you encounter others: something has to die in them; something has to die in me, and we bear the cross together.

‘So that’s where I think an ecumenical way the cross makes a lot of sense,’ he says, because in ecumenism, ‘over the years, through public witnessing and prayer and encounter, we’ve actually grown together. So any kind of argument or disagreement or division, subsequently, hurts us even more. And that’s the mystery of the cross, because when people love each other, then when the disagreement happens, it’s even more painful.’

While ecumenism, if it’s authentic, inevitably entails this kind of pain or discomfort, Fr Denis says, we shouldn’t be frightened of taking up the cross because this, ‘in the end, is life-giving. And we all believe that together … You just have to keep carrying the cross.’

Route of stations on the Way of the Cross

  1. St Francis’ Church, 326 Lonsdale Street, corner Elizabeth Street
  2. Garden of St Francis’ Church, corner Elizabeth and Little Lonsdale Streets (led by the Welsh Church)
  3. CrossCulture Church of Christ, corner Swanston and Little Lonsdale Streets
  4. Wesley Uniting Church, 148 Lonsdale Street
  5. St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Cnr Gisborne and Albert Streets
  6. St Patrick’s Cathedral, corner Gisborne and Albert Streets
  7. St Patrick’s Cathedral, adjacent to the main entrance, Cathedral Place
  8. German Lutheran Trinity Church, 22 Parliament Place
  9. St Michael’s Uniting Church, 120 Collins Street
  10. Scots Church, 156 Collins Street
  11. Collins Street Baptist Church, 174 Collins Street
  12. St Paul’s Cathedral, Swanston Street entrance (led by Holy Trinity Anglican Church East Melbourne)
  13. St Paul’s Cathedral, Flinders Street entrance
  14. Easter Morning: St John’s Southgate, 20 City Road, Southbank (near the Arts Centre)

Find out more about the MCCIA Way of the Cross here, or contact your local parish to find out if there is an ecumenical stations of the cross walk in your suburb or neighbourhood.

Banner image: Participants in Melbourne’s 2022 Way of the Cross outside St Patrick’s Cathedral. (Photo courtesy of MCCIA.)