That hang-over from the mid-1960s, the theology of bad taste, has opened shop in Detroit.
It began with a letter from Archbishop Allen Henry Vigeron to the people of the Detroit Archdiocese entitled “Unleash the Gospel.” Wasn’t there anyone in the board room with the cajones to tell His Excellency that the title of his letter sounds an awful lot like one of the silliest lines ever to disgrace an action-adventure movie, “Release the Kraken!”
Well, the archdiocese has just adopted the visual equivalent of the Kraken as its new logo. The Detroit church people in charge of churning out happy talk insist this is in fact a coat of arms, an updated, truly meaningful coat of arms. It’s not. It’s a corporate logo. Please see the illustration above: original coat of arms on the left, new logo on the right.
As it happens, there is a well-respected expert in heraldry — more to the point in ecclesiastical heraldry. And he is a priest, Father Guy Selvester, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Washington, NJ. He is the go-to guy for all things coat-of-arms-related. Once glance at the Detroit logo and I went directly to Father Selvester’s blog, because I had a hunch he would have a few pertinent things to say about this mess. And boy, did he ever.
Now, in fairness, Msgr. Robert McClory was placed in charge of overseeing the redesign that would incorporate images meaningful to the people of Detroit, and to people from out of town who, during a visit, might see the new emblem and grasp instantly what it is about.
“They were trying to do something good, and new, and fresh,” says Father Selvester. “More is the pity. It is precisely all these good intentions that underscores the appalling ignorance with which this process, in the works for more than a year, proceeded.”
The archdiocese’s newspaper, the Michigan Catholic, quotes Msgr. McClory saying, “Archbishop Vigneron consulted with a wide range of people, including laity and the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council, before deciding to go ahead with the changes.” Which leads Father Selvester to wonder why the archbishop canvassed such a varied range of individuals “except someone well versed in the customs, rules and traditions of good heraldic design.”
Heraldry is a field for specialists. The emblems, known as charges, mean something. You and I may not be able to interpret the charges, but there are experts around who can. Furthermore, a coat of arms, such as the one Detroit has had for about eighty years, is dignified, it’s timeless. While the new logo will look outdated in a couple years. Why? Because logos change as fashion in graphic design changes. So the next archbishop to come down the road will have to re-brand his archdiocese all over again — and what is he going to do with the letterhead, and the shields, and the other merchandise that sports the obsolete logo?
The images on the logo represent St. Anne and the Child Mary. I know. It looks like Mary and the Christ Child, but the Detroit folks assure us it’s not. The first church established in Detroit was dedicated to St. Anne. She is the mother of the Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Jesus Christ. Msgr. McClory explains that the images start “with the Old Testament in St. Anne and continuing through the revelation of the New Testament through her daughter, Mary, one comes to Christ through the waters of baptism [the wavy lines] and is invited through the open doors of the Church.” He went on to say, “I think you can really tell a story with this. You can’t do it with the old coat of arms.”
The question then is, does every device have to tell a story? Churches are full of emblems and symbols that represent a virtue, an aspect of Christian doctrine, a saint. They don’t tell a story. It isn’t necessary that they do.
Father Selvester’s assessment of the new logo: “an epic fail.”
“What I find particularly sad,” Selvester said “is the failure isn’t because of a difference of opinion regarding taste. Rather, the fail occurred because of inexcusable ignorance of the subject at hand. They simply don’t get what a coat of arms is supposed to be. What they’ve ended up with is unheraldic and ugly.”
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life.