Icon Festival

Celebrating the Saints

As you may know I love to travel, and Italy is among my favorite destinations. One of my Italy trips was dedicated to studying mosaics. Naturally, Ravenna was on the list of cities to visit. I had studied Ravenna’s many early Christian churches while at university, but I had never seen them in person. I was completely enamored with their beauty. And though I remember all of them with great fondness, one church left a lasting impression: the 6th C. church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

The mosaics in this elegant, early Christian Basilica are just splendid. Both lateral walls of the nave are divided in three freezes. The mosaics on the top tell the story of the life of Jesus. The middle freeze shows a series of saints, prophets, and evangelists. The bottom freeze depicts a grand procession of saints. On one of the lateral walls, 22 virgins led by the magi process toward the Madonna and Child. On the opposite wall, 26 martyrs process toward Christ enthroned in glory.

Sitting quietly in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, I not only succumbed to a true artistic ecstasy, but more importantly, I had a deep spiritual revelation. As a liturgical theologian, I knew and truly believed that whenever we gather for worship, we not only gather with our local community, but we gather with the entire church, even those who have gone before us and those who are yet to come. Flanked by all the saints depicted so beautifully on the walls, I had a more profound experience of our communion with the saints than I had ever had before.

Years later and thousands of miles away, I had a similar experience in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Angels in Los Angeles. The nave of this magnificent 20th C. building is decorated with beautiful tapestries designed by John Nava and woven in Belgium. Like the mosaics in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo these tapestries depict row upon row of saints. Some saints have their names written beneath them. Others don’t, leaving room for those saints living among us and those yet to be born. As I processed toward the altar to receive Holy Communion, I had a true sense that Teresa of Calcutta and John Bosco, Bridget of Sweden and Ignatius of Loyola and countless other saints were walking with me not only toward this earthly banquet but even to the eternal banquet.

The Solemnity of All Saints is the day per excellence when we celebrate our communion with the saints. At The Basilica of Saint Mary, instead of mosaics or tapestries we have Icons to assist us in this celebration. On October 30th we process the images of the Blessed Mother and countless other saints into the church and we place them in the sanctuary. They will grace our sanctuary throughout November. We do this not only to honor these saints, but to celebrate their presence among us, especially when we gather for Eucharist.

The mosaics of the church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, the tapestries of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Angels, the Icons of The Basilica of Saint Mary remind us of our most sacred calling: we are all on a journey toward sainthood. Some of us get there quickly. Others need more time, sometimes even past our death. So we march on together, saint and sinner, side by side as we proclaim our faith in God who became human so we may become like God.




I used to live in St. Louis, MO and last spring I took my kids to see the Cathedral of St. Louis with all its beautiful mosaics. You've probably been already but if by chance you haven't it's a must see.

Thank you Johan for these beautiful writings! I'm deeply grateful to you-for this and all that you do to make the Basilica a magical place. You are truly inspiring.


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