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

As prime travel season is upon us I am reminded of trip I took many years ago to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Santiago is Spanish for Saint James, one of the 12 disciples. Compostella is a derivation of the Latin: Campus Stellae or field of stars. The origin of the name for Santiago de Compostella goes back to the middle ages. Legend has it that after his death the disciples of St. James brought his body to Spain for burial. When the location of his burial site was lost to history some shepherds noticed strange lights or stars in a field. Upon further investigation they discovered that the stars pointed to the place of burial of St. James. A church was erected over his tomb. As the news of the miraculous discovery and the many miracles worked there spread throughout Europe Santiago de Compostella quickly became an important place of pilgrimage and the original church was replaced with the current monumental Cathedral.

During the Middle Ages people made their way to Compostella from all over Europe. Dozens quickly became hundreds and hundreds became thousands. Pilgrims came from Italy, France, Northern Europe and the British Isles. Soon, paths were formed like walking trails in forests. Those paths became the official route to take and refuges and churches were built along the road. These were mostly tended by religious communities who provided pilgrims with food, water, rest and sprititual care if needed.

A pilgrim coming from Great Britain started out by walking to the crossing at Dover. Once in France he or she picked up the French pilgrims’ way which went to the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. There the pilgrim connected with the Spanish portion of the route. These pilgrimages could take many months depending on one’s place of departure. Regardless of its length, the journey was never easy. Bad weather, hunger, sickness and burglary were all part of the course. It took extraordinary dedication or even an ecclesiastical obligation such as a penance for committed sins to go on this kind of pilgrimage.

Today the pilgrimage is popular, again. True pilgrims still walk to Santiago. And though the circumstances are better; bad weather, occasional hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, illness and even burglary make the journey very real. Less dedicated pilgrims may take to riding a horse or a bike, driving a car, riding in a bus or even taking the plane. I am sad to say that we took the easy route and rode in a luxury coach. Yet regardless of one’s mode of transportation, everyone’s goal is to make it to Compostella, the Field of Stars.

This pilgrimage is a metaphor for our entire Christian Journey. Some of us get to Compostella, the place of light with the speed of an airplane, maybe even sitting in first class seats. Others take a slower, yet still direct route to Compostella. And some are rather circuitous about their journey. They may start in England, make it to France, take a detour through Italy and finally arrive at the tomb of the saint.

Similarly, for some, our journey to oneness with Christ may take a long time and a less than direct path. Others take a more direct and quicker route. We all make this journey on our own terms and according to our own spiritual compass, though we share the same goal: getting to the field of stars; touching the light; becoming one with Christ.

Most of us will never make the trip to Compostella, but many of us have our own Compostella, our own field of stars, our own place of pilgrimage. For Minnesotans this is often a favorite place by a lake or in the woods where we can find rest and peace and reconnect with God and one another. Should you find yourself there on a rainy day and wanting to watch a movie I recommend “The Way.” This film tells the story of Santiago de Compostella beautifully. It also speaks to the journey each one of us is taking. May this summer’s journey bring renewal of body, mind and soul to all of us.

 

 

Some years ago I was asked to give a tour of The Basilica to a group of lawyers, physicians, reporters and university professors from the Middle East. Most of them were Muslim with the exception of one or two Christians. They had been invited by the State Department to experience our country first-hand. My task was to show them the building and while doing that answer any questions they might have about Christianity. Given the many images and symbols around our building it was rather easy to offer a quick introduction to our catholic faith.

Toward the end of the tour a journalist from Yemen asked me how we could consider ourselves monotheists or believers in one God as we seemingly worshipped three Gods. As fate or better yet, Divine Providence would have it we were standing by the chapel of St. Anthony. Carved in the wall leading to this chapel is a representation of a snake and a clover, the symbolic representation of St. Patrick. The snake refers to the belief that Patrick chased all snakes out of Ireland. The clover was used by Patrick to explain the mystery of the Trinity. Pointing out that a three lobed clover leaf has indeed three lobes but constitutes one leaf he explained that the Holy Trinity is one God but three persons.

I pointed out the carving of the clover in the wall and told the story of St. Patrick. I told them that we have a threefold experience of the one God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. I spoke of our God we call Father who created all that is. I spoke of our God we know as Son who redeemed us from our sinfulness and death. And I spoke of our God as Spirit who inspires us to live according to the Gospel.

Hesitatingly admitting that on some level this made sense, the journalist then told me of a picture she saw of the Christian God in the form of three men. How was she to deduce that this actually was an image of one God? I asked her if the three men looked alike.” Indeed they did”, she said, “they looked exactly alike”.  There, of course is a reason for that as the three are actually the one and the same.

Nevertheless, the representation of God as three men, more than likely old and long bearded white men does not necessarily enhance the understanding of the Trinity. In the end, God only became human in Jesus Christ. Depicting the other two persons of the Holy Trinity in human terms may be too much of an anthropomorphic approach to the Trinity. This actually may impede the understanding of our God by Christians and non-Christians alike.

The mystery of our Tri-une God is in essence the mystery of an intimate relationship. In the same way as two humans who love one another are one in their love but separate individuals so the persons of the Trinity are one in their relationship but distinct in their personhood.

As our visitors left The Basilica they thanked me profusely for giving them a better understanding of Christianity. The Yemini journalist said nothing, but just smiled. To this day I am not sure what she ended up thinking about our faith. Of course, thinking is probably the wrong verb as it really is all about believing. After all, as the little boy by the sea told St. Augustine, it is no more difficult to move all the water of the ocean using a seashell than it is to comprehend the Holy Trinity.

 

Many, many years ago I was asked to proclaim the first reading on the solemnity of Pentecost. I was about 12 years old and was extremely excited to be asked. Little did I know that this is one of the most difficult readings to proclaim. My dear great-aunt, sister Hildegard worked with me on the pronunciation of the words. I was quite intrigued by the people I had never heard about: who were the Parthians, the Medes or the Elamites? My great-aunt seized the opportunity and enlightened me about all of them. Ever since, I have had a great love for the Acts of the Apostles. And in the spirit of full disclosure, despite my careful preparation, I stumbled. It was Phrygia and Pamphilia that did me in. Embarrassed I solemnly declared I would never proclaim in church again.

 

Despite the embarrassment, I will always be grateful for the experience and especially for my great-aunt’s introduction to the early church. It allowed me to imagine Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. I likened it to the Sunday Market in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and Europe. When my grandmother took me there for the first time I could not believe my eyes. Coming from a small and traditional town in Flanders, the sight of people from all over the world made me dizzy with excitement. I could not believe the exuberant and colorful clothes. Competing music in unknown languages blared from the different booths. I saw vegetables I had never seen before and to this day I remember being overcome with the scent of the many different spices. It was an absolute delight and it felt like I was traveling from country to country in a matter of moments. This is how I imagined Jerusalem in the time of the apostles.

 

Having a vivid imagination I knew exactly where the apostles were. I saw them hiding in the upper room. In stark contrast to the festive market outside, the apostles were laden with angst and burdened by uncertainty. I could see the fear in their eyes and feel the weight on their shoulders. And then, in an instant everything changed. Aflame with the Holy Sprit they threw open the doors and windows, burst into the streets and started speaking of the marvelous deeds of God.

 

This happened with so much energy that it quieted the market gathering. And miraculously, everyone could understand what the apostles were saying, no matter their native tongue. By the power of the Holy Spirit, all the sudden the differences between all these people were overcome as they all received the same Good News.

 

Our world today is very complex and extremely diverse. Yet, unlike my image of the Jerusalem market where there was a certain harmony within the diversity a dangerous fog of fear and anger seems to linger over our world today. These days, diversity of any kind often leads to division and rather than experiencing it as something exciting and enriching diversity is met with suspicion and apprehension while the gap between the many groups and factions is widening at an alarming pace.

 

The political world is particularly affected by this. Yet, our church is not immune to this either. Rather than welcoming the richness that comes from respectful dialogue between diverse opinions we seek safety in uniformity. And rather than listening to one another it seems like we just speak louder and louder in a desperate attempt to be heard and to win whichever battle we are waging. Sadly, we lack the inner peace and the mutual respect needed to listen intently to one another and learn from one another and together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit continue to weave the richly diverse tapestry of Christianity and humanity.

 

I look forward to the day when it will be said: “We are republicans, democrats and independents; rich and poor; liberals, conservatives and moderates; women and men and children; gay and straight; Africans, Asians and Americans; Australians and Europeans yet we hear them speaking in our own tongue of the mighty acts of God.” We are very different, and yet, we are one. What a great market place that will be. May that day come soon! 

“Ask Mother Mary for help.”  With these words my grandmother always sent me along, either to school or camp or just on my way home. At first I thought she was telling me I could always ask her for help as her name was Mary. It was not until she was more explicit about it that I learned she was referring to the Blessed Mother. 

From that day on whenever my grandmother suggested I “ask Mother Mary for help” I obliged. Without much thought, I usually just repeated what my grandmother told me and prayed: “Mother Mary, help me.” Most of the time, there was no specific need. And while this interaction seemed somewhat perfunctory and almost mindless it was comforting. 

One time I remember asking my grandmother how it was that I should request Mary’s help? I clearly had never met her. And since we did not know one another how could I be assured that she would help me? Without saying a word, my grandmother stopped me in my tracks and walked me to the Lourdes grotto in her garden. She told me to “look at her face.” We stood there for a long while without saying anything. At first I thought it strange but as I continued to look at Mary’s face it was as if I no longer saw the plaster statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. I actually had a strong sense that I was gazing into the eyes of Mary herself. I had a veritable “Visio Divina” or “Seeing the Divine” moment before it was named thus. 

Mary looked remarkably like my grandmother, though maybe a bit younger and darker skinned. And sounding like my grandmother she assured me that I could always “Ask Mother Mary for help.” I am not sure how long the experience lasted. Suddenly, I felt my grandmother’s hand on my shoulder. I looked at her. She nodded and walked me back to the front door. As we said our goodbyes I told her that Mary looked and sounded just like her. My grandmother smiled, waved me out and said “Ask Mother Mary for help.” 

As I am writing this column I am looking into the face of the many statues of Mary that grace my office: Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of LaVang, Our Lady of Africa, Our Lady of Guadalupe. They all look different. They appear as they were described by those who had a vision of them. And they all remind me of that one moment filled with grace so many years ago and I can hear my grandmother’s voice inviting me to: “Ask Mother Mary for help.”

My response to this invitation is no longer as quick, automatic or evident as it was when I was a young boy. I guess I have become a bit tainted by age and I may have lost some of my ability for spiritual seeing and hearing. Sometimes I wish for that uncomplicated time when I could just ask for help. I also wish for the amazing sense of Mary’s presence I had so many years ago. Maybe I don’t listen well enough? Or maybe I look in all the wrong places?

As we celebrate Mary during the month of May I will be looking for her, not only in the face of the many statues I have in my office but also in the faces of the many women who surround me. They have nourished my faith from the very beginning and they continue to do so until today. Some of them do this from the other side of this life while others do it here and now. And I will ponder the question whether Mary took on my grandmother’s face when she appeared to me or whether my grandmother looked like Mary?  In either case, it is an affirmation that all of us are called—not only to become like Christ—but also to become like Mary, this strong Jewish women who dared to say yes to the greatest mystery of all: bearing God to the world.

On Mother’s day I will light a candle for my mother, my grandmother and for all the women who surround me as I think of them and honor them and pray for them. I will ponder their face in that of Mary and Mary’s face in theirs and I will “ask Mother Mary for help.”  

He is Risen

One of my most treasured memories of the Easter Season goes all the way back to my years as an altar server. On Easter Monday, after celebrating the many Holy Week Liturgies, our 30 or so servers were separated in groups of four and assigned sections of our parish. We were to go from home to home, ring the door bell and wish whoever opened the door a Happy Easter. Since most everyone in our town was Catholic we were blissfully unaware of the potential interfaith implications of our actions. Most people were expecting us and returned our greeting with a gift of chocolate Easter eggs. At the end of the day we all returned to our parish church and divvied up what was left of the chocolate loot, having indulged in some of it before making it back to church.

Though I did not realize it at the time, this was an important evangelization tool. Our mission really was to bring Easter Greetings to those people who had not celebrated Easter in church. This kind of living-out of our faith in the market place has lost much of its luster as we have become an increasingly pluralistic society with accompanying demands of political correctness. Much of what I took for granted, from processions through our streets, to the ubiquitous Marian chapels and saints’ shrines, to this Easter Monday activity has disappeared. Thus we have lost some of the concrete expressions of our faith outside of our churches.

Though, of course, it is not our desire to insult people with our outward expressions of faith. We always need to respect where people are at in their own faith journey even as proclaim to the world what we believe and in whom we believe. If our church is to be healthy and thrive our faith must be celebrated in our churches as well as in the market place.

So, what do you think, should we have our servers and by extension all our liturgical ministers knock on doors to wish people Happy Easter? In our days, a good alternative might be to do this via social media. So, lets tweet and post away that Jesus Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed!

Happy Easter.

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