'Epic' photo of St. Joseph Day celebration evokes 'unapologetically Catholic' vibe

DETROIT (CNA) — Maybe it was the classic sunglasses, the skinny jeans or the flocculent mustache. Maybe it was the vintage-style religious art, the men in embellished uniforms, or what looks like incense rising from the streets.

Whatever it was, a Detroit Catholic photo of a religious procession with a circa-1940’s aesthetic recently fascinated Catholics, who shared it on social media and other places around the internet.

Except the photo of a St. Joseph’s procession on the streets of Detroit wasn't taken in 1945. It was taken last week.  

“I guess what really makes it ‘epic’ in today’s terms is the steam from the city that ... looks like holy incense,” said Canon Michael Stein, ICRSS, rector of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Detroit, which sponsored the procession.  

“We dubbed it ‘city incense,’” he said of steam that can be seen rising up from the street in the already-iconic photo.

Canon Stein is a member of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a Roman Catholic society of apostolic life with an emphasis on the traditional Latin Mass. The Institute was invited to St. Joseph’s Church in Detroit in 2016 to revive what was then a struggling Church community.

(What is a “canon,” you ask? “In layman's terms, if you take a monk on the one hand, and a diocesan priest on the other, and smoosh them together, you get a canon,” Canon Stein said.)

See more of Detroit Catholic's photos from the procession

“When there was every material reason to shut it down (not enough funds, not enough faithful, a crumbling building), we’re very grateful that Archbishop Vigneron had a much grander vision (for the parish),” Canon Stein told CNA.

“He created a win-win situation by unmerging St. Joseph’s (from a cluster of three parishes), making it its own parish within the archdiocese, and then inviting the Institute of Christ the King to come live here and breathe daily parish life back into it from scratch, and that’s exactly what we’ve done for the past two years,” he said.

One very visible sign of that new life in the parish is the beautiful St. Joseph’s procession, which the Institute has organized since 2017.

The appeal of the photo, taken by Detroit Catholic photographer Naomi Vrazo, and of the procession (which this year included almost 200 people), goes deeper than aesthetics, Stein said.

“I think it’s safe to say there’s a profound theological and spiritual reason why that photo resonates so much with our hearts,” he said.

“We are the religion of the Incarnation. God became man, the invisible God became visible, he sanctified the material world and elevated these visible, tangible signs to communicate invisible graces and to convey eternal truths.”

Vrazo said when she noticed the steam rising from the manhole covers, she waited for the perfect moment to arrive.

“I had to run to get in front of the procession because I was closer to the back, and I’m sure I looked kinda funny, but clearly it was worth it,” Vrazo said. “I really was just looking for them to walk through the smoke, because I knew there was a potential for a great shot. It’s hard to predict whether or not the photo will turn out, especially if it’s something I’ve never covered before, but I’m really glad it did.”

Steam rising from manhole covers took on the appearance of incense as hundreds followed a statue of St. Joseph, with clergy clad in traditional choir vestments chanting the litany.  

Vrazo said it shocked her how quickly the photo made its way around the Catholic web and blogosphere.

“Because I take so many photos, I never really know which ones are going to catch people’s eyes, but a friend of mine said 'It’s so unapologetically Catholic,' and I think that’s part of it. I also think circumstances were so unique — you just don’t see a lot of processions anymore, especially to St. Joseph, and then you mix in the smoke and the sunglasses and the different 'looks' of the people in the picture, and it makes for a one-of-a-kind shot.”

Daniel Egan, one of those in the procession, told Detroit Catholic that witnessing to the faith “is what we do” at St. Joseph.

“This is a perennial St. Joseph Day tradition. St. Joseph Parish has been here for almost 150 years, so this isn’t new to this area. Maybe it fell out of practice for the last 30, 40 years, but we are showing we are Catholic, as we are called to,” he said.

“Because I take so many photos, I never really know which ones are going to catch people’s eyes, but a friend of mine said 'It’s so unapologetically Catholic,' and I think that’s part of it. I also think circumstances were so unique — you just don’t see a lot of processions anymore, especially to St. Joseph, and then you mix in the smoke and the sunglasses and the different 'looks' of the people in the picture, and it makes for a one-of-a-kind shot.”

“As Catholics, we’re told to live our faith in season and out of season, in the public square and in private, and that includes the city streets. If we’re not Catholic out there, we are truly failing to be authentically Christian.”

The photo of the procession includes the Knights of St. John in full uniform (a Catholic charitable organization with a very long history), as well as parish vicar Canon Adrian Sequeira, ICRSS, leading the procession in full choir habit, which is used when the order chants the Liturgy of the Hours together. The spots of blue throughout the photo symbolize the order’s total consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Canon Stein said.

St. Joseph speaks to the hearts of today as a gentle and loving man and father and worker, Canon Stein told CNA.

Part of the homily from the feast day, he said, explained that God sends saints for the times — either holy people of the time who are witnessing to the Gospel, or saints of old who are re-presented and raised up as intercessors for the times.

“It only takes a quick glance around the world to see a fatherless society, and to see either a slothful or workaholic society, or a lack of an appropriate understanding of manliness,” Canon Stein said.

“It’s neither brute nor effeminate, it’s faithful, it’s steadfast, it’s courageous and gentle. And we find all those things in St. Joseph, so I think that’s another part of the power of that picture.”

While it looked like a scene straight out of the 1940s, the procession with a statue of St. Joseph was very much a reality of 2019 -- and one the priests and parishioners of St. Joseph Oratory hope will continue for years to come.

The procession, which traveled for less than a mile, stopped rush-hour traffic in the city, with the collaboration of Detroit police. It traveled to the Eastern Market, an iconic makers market in Detroit that has remained in the city since the 1800s, where workers can sell their wares and fathers can support their families — two things of which St. Joseph is the patron, Canon Stein noted.

“So all the workers got to see their patron processing through the streets, whether they knew it or not,” he said.

The procession was part of numerous events celebrating St. Joseph that took place in both St. Joseph’s parish and throughout the archdiocese. In addition to the procession, St. Joseph’s parish had three Masses, an Italian dinner, and a running litany of other activities and devotions throughout the day.

Other Detroit parishes had St. Joseph’s Masses and dinners, including San Francesco Parish, which held a Mass, Italian dinner and St. Joseph’s play, and Holy Family Parish, which held an Italian-language Mass.

Beyond being a photogenic opportunity, Canon Stein noted, the procession and all of the festivities on the feast of St. Joseph are the fruit of a lively spiritual and liturgical life.

“It shows that we’re alive,” Canon Stein said. “These things are the fruit of a daily sacramental life, these things are the fruit of a reverent liturgy, and the fruit of a solid catechesis. They’re the fruit of our young adults being committed ... Detroit as a city is coming back, and a lot of millennials are staying after college to get their first career jobs here.”

To fill the needs of an increasing number of young people, St. Joseph’s offers teenage catechesis and young adult groups, Canon Stein said. The parish also has daily Mass and confession, a schola choir, and active volunteer groups, among other ministries. Within just two years, it’s become a hub for millennials in the archdiocese, he noted.

“We are predominantly young,” Canon Stein said, and young people are hungry for an incarnational faith.

“We are body and soul, all these spiritual truths are meant to be communicated through our senses. We get to see our faith, hear our faith, taste our faith, etc., and that just appeals to us so much,” he said.

“Truth needs to shine in beauty ... we’re not angels, we’re not just pure intelligences, we need to see, touch, hear; and that’s something the traditional liturgy has always done. That’s something that a reverent Mass or procession can do, these visible signs that the Church has used throughout her history to excite devotion and promote devotion.”


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