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

Photo of Divine Mercy Icon

Divine Mercy

A few years ago, one of our parishioners asked if he might donate an image of the Divine Mercy to The Basilica. Not entirely sure what he had in mind I was a bit hesitant. In the end, his persistence and my reluctance paid off and we now have a beautiful Icon of The Divine Mercy by Deb Korluka, our Basilica Iconographer.

This Icon usually hangs in the St. Joseph Chapel but during the Easter Season it hangs from the Pulpit in the Basilica.

The Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis caused me to ponder the mystery of mercy a little further. I was delighted to have the opportunity to be in Rome for the opening of the Holy Year on December 8, 2015. When, at the end of Mass he opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica all of us gathered in St. Peter’s Square burst out in applause. And what a joy to see so many people pass through our Holy Doors when we opened them.

 Recently I preached a mission on mercy in a California parish. I reluctantly accepted never having preached a mission. In the end, the experience turned out to be a gift from God. Not only did this commitment force me to think even more deeply about mercy I had to speak about it in a compelling way.

What I discovered is that our common use of the word mercy does not do the complexity and depth of God’s mercy justice. Hebrew, Greek and Latin do a better job of it. 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. 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.  The Latin word for mercy, misericordia means broken heart. It suggests that God is broken hearted about our failings and wants nothing more than to help.

Every day of the year, especially on Sundays we celebrate the richness of God’s mercy most especially as it was revealed to us in Jesus Christ. He embodies God’s enduring love and limitless mercy for us. It is this image of the merciful Jesus that is depicted in the Divine Mercy Icon.

 As we contemplate this Icon during the Year of Mercy let us give thanks for the mercy God has shown us. And in turn let us show mercy to one another. Mercy given and mercy received, that ought to be the motto of all Christians.

Holy Saturday is one of my favorite days. I like to arrive at The Basilica before the hustle and bustle of the Easter preparations begins. The cross we venerated the night before is still laid out on purple pillows, covered with rose petals strewn from the dome. The air is heavy with the smell of incense and the aroma of scented oil. And above all, everything is perfectly still. This silence is not a dead silence, rather it is a silence filled with the promise of new life.  It is a silence rich with anticipation and hope.

Bathing in the early morning light that pierces through the stained glass windows and dances on the receptive limestone walls I sit for but a few moments and let my mind wonder, inevitably guided by an icon and a homily which is sometimes ascribed to Pope Gregory the Great .

The icon depicts the risen Christ who broke the doors of hell with his victorious cross and opened the gates to paradise. Beneath his feet the dead are slowly coming to life. Most prominent among them are Adam and Eve, the first among the dead. Jesus, the new Adam holds on to the hand of the old Adam and prepares to lead him out of Hell. Adam in turn reaches for Eve’s hand and brings her along. And everyone else in Hell reaches for Adam and Eve. Thus all those who were asleep in death now are brought to new life.

According to the author of the ancient homily, Jesus said to Adam: “for you are in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.” The old Adam and the new Adam have once again united. That was the ultimate mission of Jesus: “God became human so that humans might become like God” as so many ancient bishops wrote. This uniting of heaven and earth, of God and humans is the essence of the Easter message. We are all one because God became one of us so we might become like God. And God unites us all no matter who we are or where we are and invites all of us to be more like God.

Those who are imprisoned by poverty, addiction and prejudice are invited to break free. Those who promote the darkness of racism, sexism, religious extremism are challenged to a change of heart and to come into the light. And ultimately those who are asleep in death are called to new life. This resurrection challenge the risen Christ places before all of us on Easter is not an easy task but it is what we are asked to do as Christians: we are called to break barriers, to set people free, and ultimately to celebrate and protect all life.

The silence on Holy Saturday is short lived as our many volunteers and   those who will receive the Easter Sacrament start to arrive.  If Holy Saturday is my favorite day, the talk I share with those who will join the church during the Easter Vigil is my favorite talk of the year. These women and men have been on a very intentional journey for months and sometimes much longer. They have prayed, studied, and shared many things with one another. And now they are ready. Their faith and commitment, their hope for the future and their love for God and one another embody what Christ asks of us today: to believe in Him and to imitate Him. Their excitement is exhilarating. Being with them reminds me of an ancient hymn used on Easter Sunday when those who were baptized the night before enter into the church:

These are the lambs, newly baptized,

Who proclaim the glad tidings: Alleluia

Recently come to the waters,

And full of God’s light and splendor. Alleluia, Alleluia.

May God’s light and splendor which shines so brightly in the new members of our community invigorate all of us so we can go forth from our Easter celebrations with a new resolve to be the much needed light for the world. Thus we will become like God as God has ordained for us for God is in us and we are in God.

Blessed Easter to all.

Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion inaugurates Holy Week. This is the time Christians remember and celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. At the heart of this celebration and commemoration stands the cross. This cross is laden with pain, humiliation, death but it is also crowned with salvation, resurrection and joy.

Unless we just go through these days moved only by the skin-deep experience of sadness and joy without allowing it to touch us deeply, we cannot but ask the question as to the reason for the cross. Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

In a valiant attempt to make this mystery easily accessible, the answer has been made quite simple: “Jesus died for our sins.” If so, what does that mean? Did he die as a result of our sins? Did he die to atone for our sins? Did he die in order for us to rise above our sins? Did he die in order for us to move beyond our sins? And whose sins are we talking about? Do we mean the sins of our ancestors; our very own sins; or maybe even sins yet to be committed? A complete answer includes all of the above and much more. There is however another approach to this mystery. This approach suggests that the death of Jesus was the ultimate expression of God’s unconditional love for all of us as Jesus gave his life for the salvation of the world. We are the recipients of this unconditional love. In turn, we are called to love unconditionally. Once we have reached this level of love, then all sinfulness will be banned from the earth and the promise will be fulfilled.

Our Christian history has emphasized our human sinfulness and unworthiness. I remember a Good Friday homily in the early 1970ies during which the priest told us that we were nothing but “rats in the gutters of life, unworthy of God’s love”. We have a proven history of making sure that people are aware of their sinfulness and their unworthiness. There seems to be a resurgence of this with many believers pointing out sin in society and in people’s life. “Thank God I am not one of them.” We tend to feel good about ourselves as we define ourselves relative to the perceived graver sins of others. And as we enter into this game we often look at the part, rather than at the whole, a praxis which applies to much of our lives. We fail to see the moral forest in favor of one sinful tree. We love to position ourselves as protectors of the Gospel values up and against public sinners. If I recall, Jesus has a few choice words for us: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” And further: “I will not condemn you either. Go home and sin no more.”

 All of us have closets filled with skeletons…skeletons of hatred, jealousy, envy, pride, self-righteousness… Holy week is a good time to open our closets and deal with those skeletons, our own skeletons. Change will only happen when we concern ourselves with our own skeletons. This is not an easy exercise. It is much easier to find fault with others. Can you imagine how wonderful the world would be if all of us spent as much time cleaning our own spiritual house as we spend on finding fault with others? May Holy Week 2016 be a time of remembrance, celebration and spiritual renewal for all of us.

Recently, a reporter asked me whether Lent was considered passé by 21st C. Christians. Her question took me a bit by surprise. Not to be stumped I told her that Lent is more important than ever. Lent and Easter offer the perfect antidote to the barrage of negativity we face on a daily basis. So no, Lent is not passé, on the contrary.

Granted, the motivation for people’s participation in the Lenten disciplines may have changed. Visions of purgatory and Hell rarely move people anymore. I suspect it is a profound desire to be better people and the hope for a better world that motivates people to participate in the disciplines of Lent.  

After all, the essence of Lent is to right those relationships that have been wronged. Many, if not most of the world’s problems are due to wronged relationships. Different religions quarrel with one another and among themselves. Nations fight other nations. People exploit other people. All these evils are rooted in wronged relationships.

The Lenten praxis of righting relationships is rooted in the Bible. The Biblical Year of Jubilee which was called every 50 years was essentially about righting relationships. Captives were released. Slaves were set free. Those who had lost property were reinstated. Debts were forgiven. And beyond all these human relationships the relationship between humans and God was righted as well. During the Year of Jubilee God was recognized anew as the creator of the universe from whom all things come and to whom all things belong.

Every Lent is a mini Year of Jubilee and a call to right relationships. We do this through prayer, fasting and giving. And we do this not because we feel guilty or are afraid but rather because we want to do better and we want our world to be better.

During his general audience on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis called on us “to practice pardon, combat poverty and inequality and promote an equitable distribution of the earth’s goods to all.”  Our common goal is to “create a society based on equality and solidarity.” In essence, what pope Francis asks us to do; what the Church asks us to do; what the Bible asks us to do; what God asks us to do is to right relationships.

This is not an easy task. The season of Lent and the Year of Mercy offer us the opportunity to make some changes in our lives through prayer, fasting and giving that will right relationships and move us forward in the direction of this Biblical vision of solidarity, equality and peace. Equality can only be reached when we are committed to solidarity. And peace will never be attained unless we have equality.

Is Lent passé? I am sure that it is to some. I am also sure that to others it is nothing more than a cultural expression of a gone-by era. For true believers it is an exquisite opportunity to right relationships with God and with one another by advancing solidarity, equality and peace through prayer, fasting and sharing.

May this Lent be blessed for all of us.

 

Recently a young man approached me following one of our Sunday liturgies. He asked if we needed him for the liturgy. Eager to recruit I immediately said “yes, of course.” He thanked me and walked away. I was surprised he did not ask where he could sign up or how he could be most helpful. Maybe his question was more complex?

Reflecting on this interaction, I was reminded that shortly after the post-Vatican II liturgy had been implemented, Pope Paul VI said that up until then it had been sufficient for lay people to merely assist at Mass. “Before,” he said “being there was enough; now attention and activity are required. Before, everyone could doze or chatter, now all must listen and pray.” (see Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982) 27, 401, 115).

This most major shift from ‘assisting at Mass’ to ‘actively participating in the liturgy’ has revolutionized our Catholic understanding of the liturgy. No longer is it acceptable for the laity to watch the ordained ministers celebrate the rites of the church. Since this momentous shift, all Catholics are invited, encouraged, and even required to participate in many and various ways in the celebration of the liturgy. 

However, this does not mean that everyone participates in the same capacity. The Pauline image of the Body of Christ, which is one but has many parts, helps us understand how this participation might be best understood. Though the entire Body of Christ celebrates the liturgy, different members of the Body of Christ exercise different ministries in the liturgy. 

Thus, the first ministry is that of the entire Church. We, the Church, celebrate the liturgy as the one Body of Christ. Therefore it is important that the entire Body of Christ be present at the liturgy. And it is important that the entire Body of Christ participate actively, fully, and consciously. 

Second, some members of the Body are called to participate in a more particular way relative to our gifts and talent. Certain members of the Body of Christ, e.g. have been given the talents to lead the community in prayer and are ordained to do so. Other members of the Body of Christ who have been gifted with musical talents are called to lead the community in song. Those who have the talent of public speech are called to proclaim the Word of God, etc.

Talents are entrusted to us by God for the betterment of the world and the church. Liturgical talents are entrusted to us for the betterment of the liturgy and the proclamation of the Gospel. As members of the Body of Christ we are called to use those talents. 

Like the young man who stopped me after Mass, you may wonder if we need you for the celebration of the liturgy at The Basilica of Saint Mary. The answer is plain and simple: “Yes we do!” First of all we need you to participate actively in the liturgy through praying, singing, listening, etc. Second, we need you as a minister of hospitality (usher); as a lector; as an Extraordinary minister of Holy Communion; as a cantor; as a choir member; as a sacristan; as a server; etc. Whatever your talents are, they can surely be put to the service of the liturgy.

As you serve in one of those capacities you will discover a new and deeper appreciation for the celebration of the liturgy; you will learn how to better serve the Church and ultimately you will assist with the bringing about of the Reign of God. And if you think our community is too large, this is a great way to make it smaller. So, do not hesitate. Please go to www.mary.org/liturgicalministry and start the process. And remember: ‘don’t ask what the liturgy can do for you. Ask what you can do for the liturgy!’

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