Johan's Blog

In recent years disagreements and divisions among people have been magnified and amplified. This is undoubtedly due to the indiscriminate use of social media, the politization and depreciation of the media, and a general penchant for the sensational. It seems to no longer shock anyone when politicians and pundits hurl insults and lies at one another. And the most popular criterion for truth seems to be whether something supports one’s own version of reality.

To experience this in the world of politics and business is upsetting enough. It is even more disturbing to see this happen among people of faith, even people of the same faith, and most disturbingly, among people in our own church. Though this phenomenon is nothing new, tragically it seems to have gotten worse in recent years. Whatever happened to: “You will recognize them by their love for one another?”

When Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples, an extraordinary gesture of humility and service, he left his Disciples with a new commandment: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” He went on to say that “this is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)

If Christians are to be recognized by their love for one another, then maybe we are not doing the best of jobs. And the value of humility exercised by Jesus when washing his disciples’ feet also seems to have been lost. Maybe it is time that we learn what it truly means to wash one another’s feet; to bend down before one another and to “do what Jesus did.”

When I first moved to the United States, I was given a sticker with four letters on it: WWJD. It was explained to me that these letters stood for “What Would Jesus Do.” I found it a bit silly and simplistic at first, yet over the years I have come to see the value of it, especially after someone sarcastically suggested it stood for “What Would Johan Do.”

This is indeed a simple question, yet it is, at the same time, a very profound question. If all of us Christians asked ourselves “What Would Jesus Do” before speaking and acting, maybe we would not be in the situation we are in today. We might be less selfish, less self-centered and more concerned with the fate of others. We might be less judgmental and more open to dialogue with others. We might be more courageous and speak out against injustice and discrimination. We might even be more caring and loving, a trait indicative of Jesus’ disciples. Of course, this will require that we put Jesus before ourselves.

John the Baptist, who as we know took holiness very seriously said: “He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30) This was probably not a very popular stance in John’s time, neither is it in our time. After all, who wants to decrease? And yet, as Christians we are called to do just that, so that Christ may increase in each one of us, in the Church and in society.

Decreasing is an act of humility which is not easy for anyone, including myself, but it is what Jesus asks of all of us. As we prepare ourselves for Lent, maybe we take on John’s motto to decrease, so Christ may increase; maybe we commit to asking ourselves “What Would Jesus Do?” before we speak or act; and maybe we can foster greater love among us, for it is by our love for one another that we will be recognized as followers of Jesus.

 

 

Christmas altar

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

One of the best known Advent hymns is undoubtedly O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This popular hymn is based on a 12th century Latin hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel which in turn incorporates the 8th century so-called “O-antiphons.” These antiphons were and still are sung during Vespers or Evening Prayer, one per day from December 17 through December 23.

Each of the antiphons begins with the acclamation “O,” hence their name, followed by a messianic title inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures and applied to Christ such as “O Wisdom from on High” and “O Key of David.” Together, these seven antiphons illuminate the many qualities of the Messiah we await and celebrate.

The last antiphon which we sing on December 23 addresses Jesus with the title “Emmanuel.” The word Emmanuel is derived from the Hebrew language meaning “God with us.” This is truly the essence of who we, as Christians, believe God to be: “with us.”

Too often we are tempted to relegate God to far off places. Imagining God in a magnificent setting of heaven is in a way a very safe approach. The further God is removed from us the easier it is for us to ignore God. Some people could not be more content than to offer prayers and burn incense to a far away God in the certain hope that God indeed stays far away.

Things are very different when we believe and proclaim that God is “with us” because there is no way we can avoid or ignore God “with us.”

We experience that God is truly with us most especially during the celebration of the Eucharist. St. Pope Paul VI identified 4 ways in which Christ is present in the Eucharist: in the gathered assembly, in the celebrant, in the Word proclaimed and in the Bread broken and Wine shared.

It is very important for us to experience this on a regular basis because as we learn how to recognize Christ in the Eucharist, we also learn to embrace that God is with us outside of the Eucharist in one another.

Advent and Christmas are clear reminders that our God is not content with being far removed from us. On the contrary by being born as the son of Mary, God chose to be “with is,” not far off but near by.

Theologically speaking, Advent is the affirmation of the three manifestations of God among us: in the past, some 2000 years ago when Jesus was born; in the present as we recognize God at work here and now; and in the future as Christ will return at the end of time to complete the messianic promise.

This Advent I invite us not to focus on the past and future manifestations of God in Christ, but rather to focus on the present and to open our heart and soul to God among us, here and now.

Sometimes it is not easy to accept that God is with us, especially when we face all the pain and evil that confronts so many people on a daily basis with no relief in sight. Where is God in all of this we might ask ourselves? The answer is quite simple: God is in the midst of it all, rejoicing with us and mourning with us.

Our God is not the kind of God who holds the strings to our history as if we were mere marionettes or puppets in a divine comedy or tragedy. Rather, our God is with us, accompanying us in the worst of times and in the best of times, helping us to face everything that comes our way either as a result of our choices, both good and bad or as the result choices made by others.

Moreover, God is not just a passive presence; rather God is with us as our guide and moral compass. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we find the blue print for how God wants us to live and interact with one another and with our planet.

It is also important to remember that Emmanuel does not mean “God with me” but rather “God with us.” It is God who binds us all together as we journey toward the fulfilment of the messianic promise when all will be as God had hoped it to be from before the beginning of time.

So, when we sing “O Come, Emmanuel” let us take to heart that God is with us and together let us recognize and celebrate God in our midst, here and now.

 

 

 

The Sistine Chapel with the Creation Story and the Last Judgment by Michelangelo as well as the world-renowned Rafael Rooms are often referenced when speaking about the Vatican Museums. Some people might make mention of the early Christian collections with the famous Good Shepherd and numerous Christian Sarcophagi. Others will remark about the amazing collection of modern and contemporary sacred art started by Saint Pope Paul VI. But who would expect to find a vast collection of indigenous art and artifacts from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania in the Vatican Museums? 

In 1925, Pope Pius XI organized a major exposition of art and artifacts that reflected the artistic, cultural and spiritual traditions of the different peoples of the world. Of the 100,000 objects that were sent for the exhibition some 40,000 were given to the pope and remained in the Vatican collections after the exhibition. This was the beginning of what was then known as the Vatican’s Ethological Museum.

A few years ago, Pope Francis renamed this museum and gave it the title of Anima Mundi or Soul of the World. At the same time he asked that this museum be completely re-imagined and be given a much more prominent place among the different collections in the Vatican Museums.

During the opening of the partially completed Anima Mundi Museum in October of 2019 Pope Francis commented on the transparency of this new museum. All walls and exhibition cases within the Anima Mundi Museum are made out of highly transparent glass which allows the visitor to experience art from one continent while seeing art from all the other continents. Pope Francis said: “In these showcases, over the course of time, thousands of works coming from every part of the world will find space, and this kind of installation is meant to place them effectively in dialogue among themselves. And as works of art are the expression of the spirit of peoples, the message received is that one needs to always look at every culture, at the other, with openness of spirit and with benevolence.”
On October 7, I was able to visit the Anima Mundi Museum with Fr. Nicola Mapelli who is the director of this museum. He spoke about the objects in the transparent cases as ambassadors of the different cultures in our wonderfully diverse world. I was very moved by the deep longings; the fears and hopes; the joys and sorrows all of us share as they are expressed in these many objects, no matter where and when they were made. We are so very different from one another, and yet we are so very much the same.

The following Wednesday, during his weekly audience Pope Francis spoke about the relationship between Christian freedom and our diverse cultures during his meditation on the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians. He was clear to state that welcoming the Christian faith does not “involve renouncing the heart of cultures and traditions, but only that which may hinder the newness and purity of the Gospel.” 

True Christian freedom, the Pope said, enables us “to acquire the full dignity of the children of God,” while allowing us to remain anchored in our own cultural heritage and at the same time being open to what is good and true in every culture.

The Pope deeply lamented the “many errors” that have occurred in the history of evangelization “by seeking to impose a single cultural model.” These errors, he said, have deprived the Church of “the richness of many local expressions that the cultural traditions of entire peoples bring with them.”

It was not lost on me that my visit to the Anima Mundi Museum and Pope Francis’ meditations fell on either side of October 11, a day known by some as Columbus Day and by others as Indigenous People’s Day.

As we move forward toward a world and a Church that is more inclusive, diverse, and equitable let us take an honest look at our past, let us be transparent about our present and let us courageously march toward the future, embracing the open and respectful dialogue so needed for the well-being of our world, our church, our community and ourselves.

 

As we are returning to in-person liturgies I wonder if you have ever asked yourself why you participate in the celebration of the Eucharist? Is it maybe out of a sense of obligation? Is it out of guilt or fear? Is it simply out of habit? Is it because someone makes you go? Is it because you think it’s your part of some kind of bargain with God? Or maybe it is because you are moved to celebrate the unfathomable mystery of the Creator of the Universe becoming human so as to show us the path to salvation which passes through the cross?

And if you are like me, when we participate in the Eucharist, sometimes the liturgy really speaks to us and sometimes it does not. There are times when we are moved to tears, while other times it may feel like we just go through the motions. Often this has little to do with the liturgy itself but with how we are feeling on any given day.

Yet, even when the liturgy seems boring and ineffective, as long as we open our heart to the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit the Eucharist will change us and will mold us more and more into being the Body of Christ to the world. That is the power of the liturgy.

The first reading today is from Deuteronomy. This book illuminates the evolving relationship between God and God’s people. The Covenant which God made with Abraham was unconditional, based on the profound relationship between God and Abraham. Deuteronomy presents a shift as the covenant between God and Israel becomes bilateral. God offers to uphold the covenant and bless Israel as long as the people hold up their part of the bargain by remaining faithful to the commandments and the Law of Moses.
This is exactly what Moses affirms in today’s reading. But there is a hidden danger in his emphasis on strict adherence to the law, as the law can become an idol in itself. That is what Jesus points out in today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew. 

The Pharisees take offense at the fact that Jesus’ disciples fail to wash their hands before a meal. Purification of the body in many circumstances and for many reasons was deemed important because this was prescribed in the Law of Moses. It must have been a true shock for the Pharisees to see the disciples of Jesus ignore these prescriptions. 

Jesus responds to the Pharisees by challenging the relationship between the law and the covenant. Merely following the letter of the law is not enough, according to Jesus. Much more is needed. The covenant between God and God’s people is not just about what is on the outside; rather it is about what is on the inside. It is not just about washing one’s hands but about the cleanness of heart.

The same holds for us. Our relationship with God is not just about the outside but about what is on the inside. Our celebration of the Eucharist is not just about fulfilling an obligation. It is not just about listening, saying the correct words and engaging in the correct actions. It is about singing God’s praise for the marvelous deeds accomplished in Jesus Christ. It is about opening our heart so we might become more like the one whose sacrifice we celebrate: Jesus, the Christ. It is about becoming more like Christ so we can be Christ to the world.

Or in the words of our second reading from the Letter of James: “Being hearers of the word is not enough; we have to be doers of the word.” And according to today’s Responsorial Psalm, it is the one who does justice who “will live in the presence of the Lord.” 

So let’s end by returning to my original question: why do we participate in the Eucharist on Sunday? During the Eucharist we are invited to listen to the Word so that we may become doers of the Word. And we are invited to share in the Body of Christ so we may become Christ’s hands, feet and heart to the world. These are two of the many reasons why we are called to participate in the Eucharist every Sunday.

 

In our video series "Art That Surrounds Us," Johan van Parys, Ph.D., our Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts, shares information about a piece from The Basilica of Saint Mary's art collection. In this episode, Johan tells us about some of the specific migrants and refugees depicted in Timothy Schmalz's Angels Unawares sculpture.

The Basilica is hosting the Angels Unawares throughout August on our front plaza along Hennepin Avenue. Angels Unawares depicts 140 almost life size migrants from all times and places aboard a boat. It was created by Canadian Catholic sculptor Timothy Schmalz, who also created our Homeless Jesus sculpture.

The original sculpture was dedicated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on September 29, 2019, the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The name Angels Unawares comes from Hebrews 13:2, which admonishes Christians to “show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

 

 

 

In our video series "Art That Surrounds Us," Johan van Parys, Ph.D., our Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts, shares information about a piece from The Basilica of Saint Mary's art collection.

Recently we acquired a new painting, which is hanging from the pulpit in The Basilica. Its title is Sanctuary. It was painted by acclaimed artist Janet McKenzie. McKenzie says that, as a mother, she felt called to paint Sanctuary as she mourned with the many mothers of color who have lost a child. As she was working on this painting she kept coming back to Psalm 61: 4 -- "Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings.”

 

 

 

 

In our video series "Art That Surrounds Us," Johan van Parys, Ph.D., our Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts, shares information about a piece from The Basilica of Saint Mary's art collection.
 
The Basilica will host the sculpture Angels Unawares throughout August on our front plaza along Hennepin Avenue. Angels Unawares depicts 140 almost life size migrants from all times and places aboard a boat. It was created by Canadian Catholic sculptor Timothy Schmalz, who also created our Homeless Jesus sculpture.
 
The original sculpture was dedicated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on September 29, 2019, the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The name Angels Unawares comes from Hebrews 13:2, which admonishes Christians to “show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
 
Catholic University in Washington D.C. was given a second cast of the sculpture. Before its permanent installation this fall, Angels Unawares has been traveling to several cities in the United States at the request of the artist. On Sunday, August 1 we will unveil and bless the sculpture after the 9:30am Mass. That afternoon at 3:00pm we will have a festive welcome ceremony with speakers, music, and dance; we will bid goodbye to the sculpture on
 
Thursday, August 26. There will be lots of programming around Angels Unawares between those to dates. More details are on our website at www.mary.org
 
 
 
 
 
Angels Unawares

Angels Unawares

Even though many of us do not see ourselves as migrants, humans seem to have migration in their blood. Over many millennia, our ancient ancestors migrated from the cradle of humanity in the horn of Africa to every corner of the world.  And even today, millions of humans are on the move. 

Sometimes migrations happen by choice as people are looking for adventure, are driven by curiosity or are responding to opportunity. Sometimes migrations happen out of necessity as people flee war, persecution, hunger and certain death. Sometimes migrations happen by force as people are removed from their homesteads or homelands and sent into endless misery or even are sold into slavery.

The bible is full of stories of migration. Adam and Eve were forced to leave Paradise. Abraham was told by God to leave his homeland to create a new nation. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. His descendants migrated from Egypt and ended up in the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert. Even the Holy Family fled their home out of fear that Jesus might be killed by Herod. 

Pre-existing communities have not always welcomed migrants with open arms. Sometimes weariness and suspicion about these new arrivals was warranted as they used force to stake claim to the land driving those who already lived there out. Just look at what happened in Biblical times; or look at what happened to the First Nations of the Americas when Europeans arrived; or look at what is happening around the world today. 

And yet, sometimes the reception of newcomers has been less than welcoming due to xenophobia or fear of strangers. And yet, the Bible makes it very clear that we are to treat strangers with dignity and respect. The letter to the Hebrews 13:2 admonishes Christians to “show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

As we know, Pope Francis is very concerned with the plight of migrants and refugees. On September 29, 2019, the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees Pope Francis dedicated a new monumental sculpture in St. Peter’s Square entitled Angels Unawares. Of note is that this sculpture was the first in some 400 years to be added to this iconic square. The sculpture was commissioned by Michael Cardinal Czerny who is the Under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Angels Unawares was created by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian Catholic sculptor who has dedicated much of his work to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Our Homeless Jesus is one of his well known works.

Angels Unawares depicts 140 almost life size people on a boat. They represent migrants from all times and all places. Some of them have experienced migration by choice, others by necessity or force. Among them are a Jewish man fleeing Nazi Germany; an Irish boy fleeing the potato famine; an African family being forced into slavery; a Syrian man escaping the civil war in his home country; a Cherokee man on the trail of tears; a Protestant man escaping the Counter-Reformation. The ship even includes the Holy Family. 

As he sculpted each one of these 140 people, the artist used old photographs to represent historic migrants. Some of them he found in the Ellis Island archives. He also had recent immigrants come to his studio to model for this sculpture. Thus each one of the characters on the boat represents an actual person who migrated. In their faces one can see fear or anticipation, relief or dread depending on the reason for the migration.

At the center of this tightly packed boat are two large angel’s wings referencing the Letter to the Hebrews admonishment that any one of these sisters and brothers of ours might be “angels unawares.”

Catholic University in Washington D.C. was given a second cast of the sculpture. Before its permanent installation this fall, Angels Unawares has been traveling to several cities in the United States at the request of the artist. Minneapolis and the Basilica of Saint Mary will be the last but one stop on its way back to D.C. We will host the sculpture throughout the month of August. It will sit on the plaza in front of The Basilica.

On Sunday, August 1 we will have a welcome ceremony and we will bid goodbye to the sculpture on Thursday, August 26. There will be lots of programming around Angels Unawares between those to dates. More details are to follow.

In the same way as the Homeless Jesus calls us to solidarity with people who are experiencing homelessness, Angels Unawares calls us to solidarity with people who had to leave their homes and found refuge here. As we care for them, we may be caring for angels unawares.

Visit mary.org/angelsunawares for more details. 

 

 

Angels Unawares Pope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our video series "Art That Surrounds Us," Johan van Parys, Ph.D., our Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts, shares information about a piece from The Basilica of Saint Mary's art collection. In this third installment about Mary, Johan discusses different apparitions and depictions of Mary from around the world.

Please also note that Art that Surrounds Us will be posted monthly, rather than weekly, during the summer months. Our next episode will post in July.

 

 

 

In our weekly video series "Art That Surrounds Us," Johan van Parys, Ph.D., our Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts, shares information about a piece from The Basilica of Saint Mary's art collection.
To honor of Mary during the month of May, we have a sub-series entitled Saints that Surround Us dedicated to Mary. In this second installment, Johan discusses the oldest Marian feast, image, and apparition.

 

 

 

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