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

Last night I went to dinner with some friends. We got into an animated conversation about politics and religion, two topics my mother strictly forbad during dinner. The people at the table next to us were much quieter. Though they exchanged the occasional words, most of their time was spent in silence as they used their personal devices, maybe even texting one another. Unwittingly they proved a point I tried to make. Though they were spending time together they seemed to be very much separated from one another using the very tools that were conceived to connect people. They were in their own worlds shaping and even creating their own realities.

Pointing to our neighbors, I mused about the fact that on the one hand humanity is more connected than ever before, thanks to all the travel opportunities and modern means of communication. On the other hand, humanity seems more divided than ever. And ironically, the very tools intended to unite us are used to distance ourselves from one another and even to separate and divide us. 

One of the great culprits of division in our society is our rampant propensity for a type of “self-curated reality.” Many if not most of us have resorted to creating our own bubble of reality accepting as true only those facts that fit within our own world view, regardless if the information is factual or not. In addition, we surround ourselves with like-minded people be they real or virtual. On social media, e.g. many of us “friend” those who share our worldview and “de-friend” those who don’t. This tends to create a vicious cycle of “self-curated reality” which is difficult to break. Rather than relate to one another and connect on topics that matter, we close ourselves off from thoughts that oppose our opinions and withdraw in self-curated realities.

One possible antidote to this is a much-forgotten gift we all share: our conscience. As Christians, we believe that we are created in the image of God with an innate sense of right and wrong, i.e. our conscience. This God-given conscience is a kind of moral compass that allows us to navigate the stormy moral waters of day to day life. It allows us to see our human world through the eyes of God. When used, it can prove to be a great corrective to the dangers of “self-curated realities” that are isolating and divisive. Thanks to some old cartoons, I think of our conscience as the little angel whispering into our ear what we ought to think and do.

In order to recall, encourage and even unleash the power of our God-given conscience we have created a Conversation of Conscience on the south wall in our Teresa of Calcutta Hall in the Basilica’s lower level. The overall theme for this Conversation of Conscience is Pope Francis’ proposed Revolution of Love and Tenderness. This Revolution is artistically represented through a wood carving by Sr. Mary Ann Osborne. We invite you to meditate on this work of art and to share your response to the art. In addition, four questions are intended to start a post-it conversation: Why call for a revolution? Who is deserving of my love? What is tenderness? How can I make a difference? Before doing this, please allow your conscience to percolate and inspire your thinking. Some guiding thoughts are posted on the same wall.

The Conversation of Conscience will be open throughout Lent. We hope you will participate. Your answers will be the base for further conversation on the topic. Therefore, engage your conscience as an antidote to our society’s temptation to limit reality to our own. And please invite your personal device users at dinner to do the same, maybe even through social media.

 

“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.

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