It’s hard to describe in words what happens to a community when it’s leader steps aside after so much time.
For Denver’s Catholic community, that moment came in mid-July, when Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, the diocese’s leader for the last 14 years, was named to take over the much-troubled Philadelphia Archdiocese in September. Chaput’s final Mass celebration at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver was Sunday evening.
Chaput’s relationship with his community was something I thought could be more powerfully shown through photographs than words. The 6:30 p.m. service — one that, full disclosure, I’ve attended many times before — consistently draws larger, somewhat younger crowds with its mix of contemporary themes and music with the more traditional aspects of the Catholic celebration of Mass. I’ve photographed before in the Cathedral — and its views are breathtaking — but never something with so much gravitas and importance.
For the first time, I was allowed above in the choir chamber to photograph some overhead and overall shots of the congregation and clergy. Photographing Mass and other church services and ceremonies are always a difficult balance between having reverence for what you’re photographing and doing whatever you can to get the shot, especially for more intimate moments of prayer and communion. For the archbishop’s homily, I planted myself just below the steps of the sanctuary and stayed anchored there for the duration. It meant I sacrificed getting images of him in the broader context of the crowd, but the ones I did get of him and some of the people sitting on the sanctuary’s steps were that — close and intimate, which is what I ultimately wanted. I was able to get other images of him interacting with his congregation later.
Many photographers — and count me among them — think about shots they missed during an assignment, and this one was no exception. My photo below of Chaput processing out of the Cathedral was a workable image because people can see the faces of congregants, but I wish I had been positioned on the other side to see his facial expression as he walked out of the cathedral for the final time as archbishop. You can’t get both shots, but because the story is about him, that’s the better moment — it’s filled with the most emotion for both him, and if you’re lucky, it’s possible to capture some faces of his congregants as well. Photography, be it weddings, war, sports or ceremonies, nearly always involves thinking several steps ahead.
It also requires patience. In the final image, the archbishop is laying his hands on the woman’s forehead, a moment for which I’d probably been waiting for about 20 minutes. Most people who came up to greet him afterward and say goodbye wanted photos with him, a few shots of which I took. But it wasn’t until this moment that the woman knelt down to ask for a parting blessing. After, I quickly said goodbye to the archbishop and thanked him for allowing me to be there, then headed off to dinner at City Grille nearby. I learned later that when we left about an hour later, he was still greeting people — and still had more to go.
I’ve posted a few photos here, but if you’d like to see more, I’d encourage you to view the full gallery of Chaput’s final Mass at Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on The Denver Post’s website. Two of the photos appeared in the print edition the next day.