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

She was one of my favorite aunts: intelligent, beautiful, and accomplished. When she walked into a room everyone took note of her. The final two years of her life she lived with dementia. I remember my last visit with her very well. I went to her room in my hometown’s memory care center, knocked on the door, and entered. There she sat, by the window. She was beautifully dressed. Her hair was lovely and she even wore a little make-up. With her elegant hands she pointed at a chair and invited me to sit down. 

She told me about her parents and her siblings. When she spoke about her favorite niece Jeanette, I mentioned that I was Jeanette’s son, Johan. “That is not possible,” she said as “Johan lives in the United States. He is some kind of a priest” she continued. “He is a very nice boy. Every time he comes to Belgium on holiday he visits me.” After that definitive statement she continued to talk about her past. 

When I was ready to leave I asked if I could give her a kiss. She agreed. As I leaned down to embrace her she whispered: “and to think I did not recognize you.” We hugged and cried. By the time I put on my coat she had returned to the world of her past, unaware of the present.

“To think I did not recognize you.”

This phrase came to mind when I read today’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33). The apostles had been with Jesus for a while. Yet in this passage they do not recognize him. Granted, he came to them during the night, walking on water. So, they thought him a ghost. 

But when he spoke to them they recognized his voice. Peter, the most impulsive of them all, jumped out of the boat and started walking toward Jesus. Yet, as soon as he realized he was walking on water, which is a physical impossibility he started to sink. 

There are different levels of recognition. My aunt recognized me as a nice person but not as her nephew, until she did. The apostles first thought Jesus a ghost, then they recognized him as Jesus, but not as who he truly was, the Son of God.

Jesus comes to us even today. Sometimes we recognize him, most often we don’t because he comes to us in disguise. How can we recognize him? By looking with God’s eyes, for God sees past any disguise and recognizes Christ in each one of us.

God regards us with mercy, love, and tenderness. When we do the same then we will see as God sees and recognize Christ in one another. Sometimes this is easy. Most often, it is not. And it can prove to be particularly difficult when Christ comes to us as a person who is homeless, who is an immigrant, who is different from us in terms of race or religion. And yet, it is only when we recognize Christ in those who are most different from us that we will truly know Christ.

It is our hope that at the end of time when we see Christ face to face we will not have to say: “to think I did not recognize you.”

Divine Mercy Sunday

In the year 2000 Saint John Paul II designated the second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. He did this at the canonization of Sister Faustina Kowalska, a Polish visionary whose mission it was to proclaim God’s mercy toward every human being.  Two years later, during his last visit to Poland in 2002, he said:  “How much the world is in need of the mercy of God today!” He then entrusted the world to Divine Mercy expressing his “burning desire that the message of God’s merciful love…may reach all the inhabitants of the earth and fill their hearts with hope.”  

As I was writing these words I learned that two Coptic Churches in Egypt were bombed during Palm Sunday services. The extremists of DAESH claimed responsibility. As is the case with the bombings we learn about almost every day, the death toll, physical harm and spiritual suffering were staggering.

Unable to continue my writing I went into our St. Joseph Chapel where our beautiful Icon of the Divine Mercy resides. I walked up to the Icon and looked Jesus square in the face and waited. I waited for an answer to all the evil in our world. Yet, Jesus remained silent. Somewhat frustrated I left the chapel. As I returned to my office the link to a homily by Pope Francis popped up on my phone. One passage caught my eye: “Jesus does not ask us to contemplate him only in pictures and photographs... No. He is present in our many brothers and sisters who today endure sufferings like his own… Jesus is in each of them, and, with marred features and broken voice, he asks to be looked in the eye, to be acknowledged, to be loved.” Feeling duly chastised by the Pope and grateful for Jesus’ unexpected answer to my questions I returned to my column on Divine Mercy.

Jesus, who is known as the Divine Mercy is the very incarnation of God’s mercy. In Jesus, God embodied mercy as he went about forgiving sins, healing the sick, siding with the outcast. By these very actions Jesus affirmed that God’s mercy is present in the world, even and most especially in those places where God’s mercy seems lacking. 
The specifics of God’s mercy have been described in many different ways. The three languages that are important in the history of the Bible: Hebrew, Greek and Latin offer slightly different insights.

  1. The Hebrew Bible uses two words for mercy: hesed and rachamim. Hesed is the kind of mercy that is strong, committed and steadfast. Rachamim which has the same root as rechem or womb conveys gentleness, love and compassion. 
  2. The Greek word for mercy, eleos is related to elaion meaning oil thus suggesting that mercy is poured out like oil and has the healing qualities of oil.
  3. The Latin word for mercy, misericordia is derived from miserari, "to pity", and cor, "heart". It suggests that our loving God is moved to compassion. 

God’s mercy thus is strong and steadfast, loving and compassionate, healing and soothing. These are the divine qualities of mercy that are to be ours also since we are to be the embodiment of Gods mercy in our time. Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of God must be evident and everyone should find an oasis of mercy there.

As we contemplate our beautiful Icon of the Divine Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday and as we look one another in the eye, friend and stranger alike, let us give thanks for the mercy God has shown us. And in turn let us show mercy to one another for the world indeed is in dire need of mercy, both human and divine. Mercy given and mercy received, that is the motto of all Christians.
 

 

In his letter written for the conclusion of the Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis ask that we celebrate 24 Hours for the Lord during the season of Lent. His objective is to intensify our Lenten goal of returning Christ to the center of our lives in an attempt to correct the ills of our world. To that end we are asked to engage even more deeply in our Lenten disciplines of praying, fasting and almsgiving during these 24 hours.

Among the dangers of our 21st world, Pope Francis often points out the temptation of a provisional and à la carte existence. By this he means that we are less and less willing to commit ourselves while always leaving a door open to something else or someone else. We choose and pick what suits us best at any given moment. This results in an ever increasing form of practical relativism which leaves us and the world at great risk. Christ offers a strong antidote to this narcissistic and individualistic spiral of destruction. For Christ is not only the foundation of our faith he also anchors our human existence and offers a corrective to the pitfalls of the human condition.

In a speech to a group of religious Pope Francis offered a vision of how religious life might help our 21st C. world. This vision clearly applies to the church at large which “must keep the freshness and the novelty of the centrality of Jesus; maintain the attraction of spirituality and the strength of mission; show the beauty of following Christ, and radiate hope and joy. Hope and Joy.”

Our Lenten disciples and the 24 Hours for the Lord are intended to assist us with just that:

  1. to make Jesus central to our lives anew;
  2. to deepen our spiritual life;
  3. to strengthen our mission of being Christ to the world;
  4. and above all to radiate hope and joy which results from following Christ.

At The Basilica we have set aside March 31-April 1 for this initiative. We are offering many prayer opportunities including Eucharist, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Reconciliation, Sacrament of the Sick, Station of the Cross and more. Please visit www.mary.org  for a complete schedule and sign-up instructions.

Though we offer these prayer opportunities we would like to suggest that we not limit this initiative to prayer in church alone but that we live out these 24 Hours for the Lord in our daily activities. We might be more intentional, e.g. about returning the centrality of Christ to our home by praying together, reading Scripture, creating a prayer corner, blessing one another, etc. We might engage in acts of mercy together such as work in a soup kitchen or a shelter; maybe we could write letters to our representatives explaining our Catholic stance on social issues. 

The observance of 24 hours for the Lord is the perfect opportunity to testify to the fact that as Catholics we are meant to make a profound difference in this world. We find the inspiration and courage to do this in our liturgy and private prayer. And our prayer comes to fruition when we share the hope and joy of the Risen Christ with all our sisters and brothers.

May 24 hours for the Lord 2017 bring some much needed hope and healing to our world.

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.

 

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