Johan van Parys

Director of Liturgy & Sacred Arts
Liturgy

Johan van Parys, a native of Belgium, has been The Basilica’s Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts since 1995. He holds graduate degrees in art history and comparative religious studies from the Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium, and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. 

Johan enjoys writing for Basilica publications as well as for other outlets. Since 1997 he has been the managing editor for Basilica, the award winning Basilica Magazine. His book Symbols That Surround Us was published in 2012. Johan teaches in the School of Theology at St. John’s University. He is the current chair and founding member of the MN chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums and is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgists and Societas Liturgica.

(612) 317-3434

Recent Posts by Johan van Parys

“Let’s go and pray.” Inevitably, these were Sister Eusebia’s words shortly after we greeted one another. She knew the world was in great need of prayer and rather than spend our time in idle chat she was convinced that time spent in prayer was much more valuable.

Sister Eusebia was a Dominican nun who lived in Cologne. I visited her every time I went to the city. She had a beautiful smile and was always joyous and welcoming. Together, we prayed for her sisters in Cologne and abroad. We prayed for the Pope and his intentions. We prayed for the Church. And we prayed for the needs of the world in a rather general way. 

One day I suggested that we should pray for actual needs. “Like what?” she asked. I suggested she read the newspaper before praying. She mentioned she would give it a go. When I saw her next she had stopped reading the newspaper because there was just too much anger in people, she said. So she continued to pray for all the needs of the world in general, but added a prayer for all those whose heart was hardened by anger. 

A couple of weeks ago the newspaper posted the pictures of four young people who tortured a teenager and streamed it online. I was struck by the anger in their faces. It made me think of Sister Eusebia who has long since passed. She was right. We are indeed bombarded with the reality of endless reports of anger and violence in our homes, in our cities, in our countries and throughout the world. And we are verbally assaulted by people literally shouting at one another or doing it virtually through harsh Facebook posts and brassy tweets. Anger and fear are at the basis of all of this. And as we know, anger begets more anger resulting in an endless spiral of violence.

The kind of anger our world suffers from is not limited to any specific group of people. We witness anger between people of different races, religions, classes, genders, sexualities, political affiliations, etc. Anger appears to be pervasive. And often, this anger goes hand in hand with the most extreme forms of individualism, even bordering on narcissism. We are on a very precipitous and dangerous path. 

This surely is not the path of Jesus and it cannot be the path of a Christian or any follower of God. The readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time make this very clear. They stand in sharp contrast to the un-holy ways of our world.

First, the prophet Zephaniah states that the people of God are humble. They seek justice. They do no wrong and speak no lies. They are honest and honorable. And they take refuge in the name of the LORD.

Second, Saint Paul, in the first letter to the Corinthians tells us that “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.”

Third, Saint Matthew counts among the blessed those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are clean of heart, those who are peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. 

These are challenging words. They are almost revolutionary ideas. And yet, this is how we are called to live. So, let us join Sister Eusebia who now prays for us in heaven. Let us pray for our own conversion and for a conversion of heart of those who are chained by anger. Then, emboldened by fervent prayer, let us take up Pope Francis’ challenge and unleash a revolution of love and tenderness on our broken world. For as we know, in the end love always prevails.

 

On November 20, the Solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis closed the Holy Doors in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome thus completing the Extra-ordinary Holy Year of Mercy. 39 pilgrims from The Basilica of Saint Mary were in Rome for this celebration. Our Basilica Schola Cantorum sang for the Mass. It truly was a beautiful and joy-filled liturgy. Pope Francis spoke about the past year with appreciation and gratitude. He also indicated that a lot remains to be done. 

To that end Pope Francis wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled: “Misericordia et Misera” or “Mercy and Misery” or one could say: “mercy meets and heals misery.” St. Augustine used these two words to describe the meeting between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11). This life changing encounter between Jesus and the woman pre-figures our own encounter with Jesus for we too, though sinners, are the recipients of God’s mercy. 

In this beautiful letter Pope Francis wrote: “The Jubilee now ends and the Holy Door is closed. But the door of mercy of our heart continues to remain wide open. We have learned that God bends down to us (cf. Hos 11:4) so that we may imitate Him in bending down to our brothers and sisters.” 

He goes on to say that we need to deepen our commitment to mercy by celebrating the mercy we have been shown by God; by witnessing about God’s mercy to the world; by sharing God’s mercy with the world; and by showing mercy to all those around us. In essence he once again calls on us to embrace a culture of encounter characterized by mercy, love and tenderness; a culture that tears down walls and builds bridges; a culture that invites dialogue instead of division; a culture that lifts people up rather than putting people down. 

In one of the most beautiful passages of the letter, Pope Francis calls on us to “unleash the creativity of mercy” so as “to bring about new undertakings, the fruit of grace.” In response, here at The Basilica of Saint Mary we decided to continue on the path of mercy by initiating a Revolution of Love and Tenderness. Revolutions, peaceful and otherwise, have changed the world. Our suffering world is in dire need of great change. So we propose a peaceful revolution accomplished through love and tenderness, two Christian strengths Pope Francis often links to mercy.  

How will this revolution manifest itself? It will manifest itself when we protect creation and respect and honor all life. It will manifest itself when we bridge divisions and work for the common good. It will manifest itself when we stop all discrimination and accept one another no matter our class, race, age, gender, sexuality, creed, physical or mental ability. It will manifest itself when we end all speech and acts of hatred. It will manifest itself when we put the “we” before the “I.” 

During this upcoming Year of Our Lord 2017 may we truly find ways to bring about a Revolution of Love and Tenderness for the much needed healing of our world.

One of my favorite photos of The Basilica was taken by Mike Jensen. Positioned at Dunwoody College to the west of The Basilica, Mike photographed our beautiful building against the backdrop of the entire Minneapolis skyline. This photo not only affirms the importance of The Basilica’s physical and visual presence in our skyline, but even more importantly it symbolizes the role The Basilica plays in the day-to-day life of Minneapolis and beyond.

It may be surprising to know that before any religious service was held in the building, the city of Minneapolis and the greater metropolitan area came together to consider the importance of The Basilica for the city. This was done with a series of public lectures by local and national speakers in addition to a number of concerts given during November of 1914.

In regard to the civic dedication, Mgr. Reardon, long-time pastor of The Basilica, wrote in his 1955 book, Basilica of St. Mary of Minneapolis: “The general trend of the discourses was in harmony with the purpose of the civic celebration. The speakers emphasized the necessity of civic righteousness as the characteristic of the highest type of American citizenship. The learned and highly interesting lectures alluded to the new church as a center of civic betterment even before it was dedicated to the religious purpose for which it was erected.”

Today, more than one hundred years later, The Basilica of Saint Mary continues the legacy envisioned by the early members of our Church as we carry on their vision to seek “civic betterment” or in our current parlance as we “seek the well-being of the city.” This vision so near and dear to the heart of our community is inspired by the words of the Prophet Jeremiah (29:7) who encouraged the People of Israel saying: “Seek the well-being of the city to which I have sent you. Pray for it to the Lord. For in seeking its well-being you shall find your own.”

Much has changed since those first years in the life of The Basilica community, the city, and our world. However, our commitment to be good stewards of ourselves, our city, and our world has only become stronger. 

Our calling to “seek the well-being of the city” is a microcosm and metaphor for our broader Christian calling to seek the well-being of the entire world and everyone who lives in it. This may seem like a daunting task, but we might be encouraged by all that we already do if we were to evaluate our personal and communal life. 

This week we are called to cast our vote for the next president of the United States and many other civil servants. This is a task I take very seriously having just become a US citizen in 2008. This will be my third presidential election and I am anxious to vote. The image I will take with me in the voting booth is that of The Basilica against the backdrop of the City of Minneapolis. The words I will take with me are Mgr. Reardon’s call to “civic betterment” and the Prophet Isaiah’s appeal to “seek the well-being of the city.” I will let this image and these words guide my vote.

And when we awake on the morning of November 9, provided that you went to bed, may we clothe ourselves with the mantle of “civic righteousness as the characteristic of the highest type of American citizenship” no matter the outcome of the election.

“Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten our hearts and our minds.”

My grandfather was a professional cyclist. I inherited many pictures of him riding his bike or standing on the winner’s podium. In one photo my grandfather models a hat. He looks quite stunning in his suit, overcoat and hat. A clumsily taped-on note claims that Jules Gurdebeke only wore this one kind of hat. The claim was true. This was indeed the only kind of hat he wore throughout his entire life. But why the note? When asked he admitted that this was an advertising experiment. He claimed he was a reluctant model, advertising his favorite hat. “It is not because I look good in the hat that others will too” he said. And yet, he did it. And he did it well.

I love this picture. I look at it often. The other day I was showing it to my relatives who were visiting from Belgium. All the sudden it struck me that in the same way as my grandfather somewhat reluctantly modeled the hat, I am a reluctant model of the Gospel.

Being a Christian is not always easy, especially today when religion is viewed with suspicion and believers are often considered naïve, antiquarians or worse, extremists. Surely, there are Christian extremists; there are Christians who long for by-gone times; and there are Christians who live a naïve rather than an enlightened faith.

So what are we to do as a community of believers? Do we close our doors and our hearts as we hunker down with like-minded people? Do we allow ourselves to be scared into believing that those who are different from us are intent on destroying us and our cherished traditions? Or do we embrace the reality of our diverse and complicated world and open ourselves up to dialogue and fruitful co-existence?

Our Christian faith commands us to engage in the latter. Fear is not a Christian virtue, neither is fear mongering. We are called to speak of hope and bear witness to love for our message is the message of the Gospel or the “Good News” and not the “Bad News.”

I keep the photo of my grandfather on my desk. It reminds me that though he was a reluctant model of hats, he did it and he did it well. Likewise, though I may be a reluctant messenger of the Gospel, I am called to do it and to do it well. And as I look at my grandfather’s picture I think, Christianity is the hat I wear. Sometimes it fits comfortably, other times it seems too big or too small. Nevertheless, I keep wearing it for it is the only hat I can wear. And like my grandfather, I am fine with others wearing other hats since not everyone looks good in the same hat.

Her hand shows the marks of time: arthritis, wrinkles, veins, cuts and bruises. Her hand is open, extended and inviting. A gesture which is reflective of the mission she serves. This is the hand of a woman who has lived a long life, a dedicated life. This is the hand of a woman who has served the church for many, many years. This is the hand of a woman, convinced that she can continue to contribute to the church despite old age and even beyond death.

Nestled in her hand is a simple rosary, seemingly made of olive wood. It is the string of beads she has fingered thousands upon thousands of times as prayers passed her lips. This rosary was probably passed on to her from another sister as most everything else she uses. Her prayers build upon her sister’s prayers stringing years and years of prayer together. It is this rosary she faithfully returns to at the end of the day. It is this rosary she purposefully reaches for during difficult times. It is this rosary she happily cradles during times of joy. Her dedication to prayer keeps her centered. It keeps her rooted. It allows her to stay the sacred course she embarked on when she took her religious vows.

In this image the rosary is not used for prayer, rather the rosary gently placed in her hand is a form of evangelization. A worn rosary in the hand of an elderly woman speaks to the power of prayer. Without saying a word she shows the rosary as if inviting us to take it from her so we too may enter into the saving chain of prayer. This is her legacy: prayer saves! It is what she hopes to pass on to each one of us.

Though somewhat out of focus we can see the pectoral cross she is wearing around her neck. She received it at her profession and has worn it ever since. The cross has given her direction for all these years and continues to do so today. The cross in this image quietly testifies to the love of God for us and it calls us to love one another in turn.  If the rosary invites us to prayer, the cross calls us to love and action. Prayer and love are the two great tenets of our life as Christians: we pray so we may love. This is the mandate Jesus gave us the night before he died when he told us to celebrate the Eucharist and wash one another's feet.

We don’t know her name and we need not know her name for she embodies the millions of women who have carried the church through their prayer and their actions. They are the women who have prayed for our needs, hidden behind the walls of their monasteries or in plain view in our streets. They are the women who have staffed our schools and universities where they have taught our children. They are the women who have worked in our hospitals where they have cared for our sick and our elderly.

They may wear veils instead of miters and they may carry books rather than crosiers but they are the ones who have shaped and molded so many of us into the people we are today. Their impact on our church is beyond measure. We simply would not be who we are as a people and as a church without them.

This image is a quiet testimony to the great work God is accomplishing through our religious and through all women in our church.

 

 

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