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Holy Week brings Church into focus for photographers

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Photographers and mates Giovanni Portelli and Patrick J Lee emerged from a frenetic Holy Week with a new perspective of the faith. Photo: Simon Takita
Photographers and mates Giovanni Portelli and Patrick J Lee emerged from a frenetic Holy Week with a new perspective of the faith. Photo: Simon Takita

What began as a busy Holy Week in the lives of Catholic Weekly photographers Giovanni Portelli and Patrick J Lee became something of a spiritual pilgrimage as friends, family and readers followed every prayerful or chaotic moment on social media.

As they criss-crossed greater Sydney from liturgy to liturgy, the pair encountered weather, traffic, and technical difficulties, and emerged bone-weary but spiritually refreshed after focusing their lenses on the true universality of the Church.

“The Catholic Church is universal but it wasn’t until I was asked to cover as many Easter liturgies as possible during Holy Week in 2016 that I realised how privileged we are that so much of that universality exists here in Sydney,” Giovanni said.

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After putting a call out to 1600 friends on Facebook, Giovanni was flooded with suggestions for Masses, liturgies and other Holy Week events.

“A combination of frenzied excitement and military style precision saw me attend numerous Palm Sunday celebrations and then 14 different Easter liturgies during the Triduum,” he said.

“A massive slice of Sydney’s Catholic ethnic spectrum was covered – Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite and Syro-Malabar – all with a common cause, the celebration of the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Patrick said he was reminded how blessed Australians are “to live with neighbours from all walks of life”.

“Australians from different churches, rites, traditions and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the same Easter. Yes, the same,” he said.

“And if one didn’t know any better, one could assume that a photographic essay on Easter in Sydney could end up being the same images at different locations.

“Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Giovanni’s “many highlights” included the Palm Sunday procession around St Mary’s Cathedral, the “intensity and betrayal in the Passion of the Lord spoken in Malayalam [the principal language of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church] on Good Friday”, and the “spectacular sight” of photographing from the Organ Gallery the candle-lit procession at St Mary’s Cathedral on Easter Saturday.

“Particularly moving was the former Archbishop of Mosul, Iraq [the new eparch of the Chaldean diocese in Sydney], presiding over the blessing of the Oils at Bossley Park,” he said.

“For this community, the suffering and persecution experienced by them in recent times makes the Easter celebrations so much more relevant.”

Giovanni also named as a highlight “seeing Archbishop Fisher return to his Cathedral, celebrating Chrism Mass and Easter Sunday with his brother priests and all the people”.

“Given how difficult it has been for him to regain use his hands during his illness, his handing out of Easter eggs to children after the Chrism Mass was one of my favourite photos, and a sign that our prayers for his full recovery to physical health are being heard.”

For Patrick, the pilgrimage that took him all over Sydney was made largely on his motorbike, “enduring torrential rains, chilled hands, a heavy backpack and hot Sydney traffic”.

“Yet despite all this, I knew that each time I arrived at a venue, I would again see something special, something worth remembering, something worth photographing.

“And what was it that was so important?

“It was the message of Easter told by a young Engadine man chosen to produce a re-enactment of the Passion, told by Melkites in their own Byzantine Rite, told by the Schoenstatt Sisters through their Marian devotions, told by newly-baptised men and women and told by the thousands of youth making the pilgrimage on a Good Friday Walk.

“It is this oneness of faith that makes the Easter message a powerful image to photograph – whoever may be speaking.”

Both photographers said they were welcomed with open arms and smiles, and the occasional cup of tea and sandwich.

“Every parish made me feel welcome and as the days moved on I was overwhelmed that a few people had told me they too felt they were also on pilgrimage with me through my lens,” Giovanni said.

He was heartened by the steady stream of encouraging – and occasionally cheeky – comments on his rolling coverage on Facebook.

‘Is there a church you haven’t visited this week?’

‘Gio, I’m exhausted for you! But I also feel like I’m on pilgrimage with you so keep ’em coming!’

‘That is a marathon!’

‘Does he even sleep?’

Although liturgies varied, there was no conflict of the faith, Patrick said.

“Despite the different churches, rites, traditions and ethnic backgrounds, there was no clash of culture, no theological debates, no division of faith – just a beautiful variety in the way the Easter message was delivered in every church, community and home.”

“As soon as I arrive at a venue, I was transformed from travel-weary photographer to delighted child!

“Photographers are blessed with seeing an impossible mix of wonders throughout their careers but Easter brings such a mix into one event, especially here in Sydney where our faith is blended with a melting pot of different traditions and ethnic influences.”

This “wonderful mix” – and the opportunity to photograph it – kept Patrick energised, he said.

“Never was I bored or tired at any event – it was a marvel, and a blessing, to be a witness to God’s love for so many of us.”

The journey was, ultimately, very fulfilling, Giovanni said.

“While criss-crossing the archdiocese, almost without stop, was physically tiring, it was spiritually nourishing and uplifting.

“Looking at the finer details in the pictures now that they have all been submitted, I would love to take in more of the surprising universality of the Sydney Church once again and meet more of the faithful and document their beautiful liturgies and rich rituals.”

So why do they do it?

“Because Sydney became alive with a demonstration of faith by all Christians unlike any other time of the year,” Patrick said. “This is a time when all Christians unite together for the one who gave His life for us. And for such a powerful act of love, I saw an equally powerful reaction from the followers of Christ.”



  • 217GB of photos
  • 1230km
  • 2 cars, 1 motorcycle
  • 5 cameras
  • 11 memory cards
  • 4 flashes
  • 11 lenses
  • 1 packet of Panadol
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