Behind the Lens: Chaos and piety at Penrose park

Behind the Lens: Chaos and piety at Penrose park

The Stations of the Cross drew thousands to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy at Penrose Park in the NSW southern highlands on Good Friday. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
The Stations of the Cross drew thousands to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy at Penrose Park in the NSW southern highlands on Good Friday. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Photographing the Penrose Park Passion Play is an absolutely epic pilgrimage in every sense. Among the thousands of pilgrims that gather to watch the play are nearly 50 cast and crew of all ages who dedicate themselves into making it all happen.

I too, am geared up into mission mode for what is going to be a wild biblical adventure back to 33AD. As thousands of pilgrims gather around each Station of the Cross to watch Jesus experience the Via Dolorosa, the line between reenactment and reality becomes fascinatingly blurred.

Running with three cameras just ahead of the action, I snap photos of pilgrims who are completely moved by each scene, so much so that people try to touch Jesus’ clothes!

Older Lebanese Maronite grandmothers are so taken away by the performance that they shout obscenities at the Roman centurions for constantly whipping and abusing Jesus along the way. It’s a wild and surreal moment.

As the play walks between stations, the crowds swell around Jesus and the disciples, mingling with them and talking, all with one arm up, recording vertical video for live streaming to friends and family on social media. Other scenes happen along the way too.

An older woman in a wheelchair is pushed up the hill with the help of other pilgrims. Scuffles break out among the Roman centurions and Sanhedrin temple guards and a young girl carried on the shoulder of her father asked, “Is that real?” I caught the father replying with a grin, “Yes!” He obviously enjoys watching an arms-reach biblical biff.

In every direction pilgrims are completely focused on Jesus. So focused, that several people are helped off the ground after losing their footing, distracted from recording video or taking photos.

Even I was caught up in this tight moving procession and within a moment of stopping to take a photo would be completely surrounded and out of reach of the moving action. Following the sound of Roman centurions yelling, “Move out of the way!” I got myself back on track before being stuck behind the safety rope.

As we move along the dusty track and closer to the crucifixion, the atmosphere and mood among the thousands of pilgrims drops—to silence. While dozens of people are ushered away from Golgotha, I head straight up behind the crucifixion to photograph the incredible scene in front of me, thousands upon thousands of Catholics before the cross.

Taking careful aim and even more careful footing on the rocks of Golgotha, I take a deep breath, steady my shot and click a panoramic to show a sea of people below. Moving quickly into my next position, a Roman centurion was pouring red dye into the Lance of Longinus.

Crouched over to the railing, I get ready for the next moment—the lance is carefully pushed into Jesus’ side and the red dye explodes into a big red mist, stunningly backlit from the afternoon sun.

I quickly check my camera for the moment and with a sigh of relief it all worked. The crew told me that they finished building the Lance of Longinus that morning. As I check a few other images I notice an eerie silence fell over everyone again.

As Jesus is carried down off the cross on a stretcher to the tomb, he is carried along the path closest to the crowds where dozens of children are lined up and watching. Their bleak expressions mark the end of the crucifixion as Jesus is placed into the tomb.

Before the door is sealed, I sneak in to take a photo of Jesus praying in the tomb. The scene is candlelit, dark and very hot as Peter Bruggeman (Jesus) covered in red dye and dirt begins to pray by himself. I leave him to it and quietly sneak back out.

I’ve also picked up a bit of debris from the reenactment too! A bit of red dye on one of my cameras and boots covered in dust. But there’s no time to stop for too long—after a quick sip of water, I’m back on my feet because my mission isn’t over.

It’s time to head home and get these spectacular photos of Australia’s wildest time-travelling-biblical-Easter-adventure Passion Play to everyone and of course—The Catholic Weekly!

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