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A few years ago I was in Rome for Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. I went to Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Afterwards I waited for Pope Francis to appear at the window of his study in the Apostolic Palace for the traditional Sunday Angelus. I noticed that St. Peter’s Square was unusually crowded and that there were great numbers of children.
After a brief greeting Pope Francis asked everyone present to raise their Bambinelli for a blessing. Ever since Saint Pope Paul VI started the Blessing of the Bambinelli in 1969 every pope after him has continued the tradition. To my great delight the people around me took a baby Jesus out of their pocket or purse and lifted it up so Pope Francis could bless it. I wish I had brought one of mine.
Nativities or crèches are very popular in Italy and all around the world. The popularity of this tradition is often credited to St. Francis. In 1223, anxious to return the focus of the Christmas festivities to Jesus he built his own life size nativity in a cave in Greccio near Assisi. It is believed that he modeled his nativity after a manger he had seen in Bethlehem. It is not clear if he found a live infant or used a carved image of a baby. Either way, he placed the baby Jesus on a bed of hay between an ox and a donkey.
According to his biographer, Thomas of Celano, word of this went out to the people of the town who arrived carrying torches and candles. One of the friars began celebrating Mass. Thomas of Celano wrote that St. Francis “stood before the manger…overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness…”
For Saint Francis, the baby Jesus in the manger was intended to recall the hardships Jesus suffered even as an infant. In this early suffering Francis saw a foreshadowing of the hardships Jesus was to suffer as an adult. Thus St. Francis shows us a Jesus who became truly human, sharing our suffering and pain and ultimately our death.
On December 16, 2018 which is Gaudete Sunday or the third Sunday of Advent we invite you to bring the Baby Jesus from your home nativity. Like Pope Francis does in Rome we will bless these Bambinelli at the end of the 9:30am and 11:30am Mass.
As we behold the baby Jesus in our nativities at home or around The Basilica, may we like Saint Francis be “overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness” because we know that we are gazing upon the image of the one who through his life, death and resurrection showed us the path to salvation.
My journey with cancer began on March 26, Monday of Holy Week. It made for the most incredible celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Then, on June 29, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul I received the great news that after three months of chemo the tumor was gone. For the next five years I will continue to be monitored very closely to make sure the cancer does not return.
As I have mentioned before, this has been a physical and spiritual adventure of great proportions. I do not believe for a second that God causes us to suffer. Rather I believe that life may present us with challenges. And when that happens, our faith in God offers us the necessary strength to handle it and the much needed insights to find meaning in it. So I did not ask God the question “why?” Rather, I asked God for strength and for wisdom so this experience might allow me to grow as a person and as a believer. And God obliged.
On Pentecost, half-way through my treatment I was the Master of Ceremonies for one of our liturgies. When I looked out at our congregation and saw your faces I had the most intense experience of God’s presence I have ever had. Hearing my name spoken during the Intercessory Prayers I felt the power of prayer strengthening my body and nourishing my soul. By the end of this most beautiful Eucharist I was too overwhelmed to do my usual meet and greet. I needed silence and solitude to process what just happened and to stay in the profound experience of God’s love and the support of my sisters and brothers in Christ.
As I sat quietly and listened to my inner voice, I realized again how important Sunday Eucharist is for us. And I thought of the many people who have asked me over the years: “Why should we participate in the celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday? What do we get out of it?” The answer I have given in the past all the sudden was no longer theoretical but thanks to my experience with cancer I found it to be very real.
Above all we gather to give thanks to God for the many miracles in our lives. We also gather so we might be changed in three profound ways. First, in the words of St. Teresa of Avilla, we celebrate the Eucharist so we may be “all on fire with the love of God.” For indeed, when we are on fire with God’s love no fear can overcome us. Second, in the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, we celebrate the Eucharist so we may be gathered into a “deep communion of existence” because in the Eucharist “the Lord joins us to one another.” It is this sense of community, the sense that we are never alone that gives us the strength to face whatever life brings us. And third, in the words of my late professor Mark Searle, we celebrate the Eucharist so we may be rehearsed in what it means to live the Paschal Mystery. And if we do this well we will be able to say “I have lived the Paschal Mystery long enough not to forsake it or doubt it when it becomes most real.”
As we celebrate Basilica Day let us remember why we, like so many Basilica members before us have come together for the celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday. And let us gather with ever greater fervor and devotion so that when our time of sorrow or suffering comes we will feel strengthened by the love of God, we will feel supported by our community and we will be able to say: “I have lived the Paschal Mystery long enough not to forsake it our doubt it when it becomes most real.” But above all, in the Eucharist we are assured that God works miracles in our lives, even if we might not recognize them.
Thank you all for your great support during this incredible journey.
On Sunday, July 22 we will welcome and bless our new icon of Mary of Magdala thus honoring her significant role in the history of salvation. It is our hope that this Icon will help correct a misconception which has diminished the importance of this Apostle to the Apostles for centuries.
Mary of Magdala’s depiction in the crucifixion scene is ubiquitous. She is often dressed in red, voluminous hair cascading down her back and tears rolling down her face. By contrast, Mary, the mother of Jesus is dressed in shades of blue and her head is covered. These representations epitomize and reinforce the image of the two most important women in the New Testament presented by the church for centuries: the repentant sinner and the pious mother.
The identification of Mary of Magdala with the repentant sinner was sealed in a 6th century homily preached by Pope Gregory the Great. In it the Pope identifies Mary of Magdala with the sinful woman who washed Jesus feet. And he classified the woman’s sins as carnal.
Recent scholarship has ended this caricature of Mary of Magdala by revealing who she really was: an independently wealthy woman who supported Jesus in his mission and who was the first witness to the resurrection.
Saint Mary of Magdala, pray for us.
When I give talks about the liturgy I am often asked why we do what we do. I give three answers to that question: 1. So that we may become what we believe. 2. So that we may be all on fire with the love of God. 3. So that we may truly encounter the Paschal Mystery.
As for the third I always quote my great mentor the late Mark Searle. When he was diagnosed with cancer he said: “I have lived the Paschal Mystery long enough not to forsake it or doubt it when it becomes most real.” We celebrate the liturgy so that when any one of us encounters a life threatening disease we may have the deep faith Mark had and say with him: “I have lived the Paschal Mystery long enough not to forsake it or doubt it when it becomes most real.”
That day has come for me.
On Monday of Holy Week I was told I had a tumor in my abdomen. Further tests revealed that I have metastatic seminoma. Currently it is staged at 2C. This week I will undergo more tests. If all goes as planned I will start chemo on Monday April 16. The treatment calls for 12 weeks of chemo. One week of daily 5 hour doses followed by two weeks of recuperation. This cycle is administered four times. The doctors are cautiously optimistic that this regimen will cure the cancer.
Holy Week was a new experience for me. The mysteries we celebrate during Holy Week became very real. Being the celebrant for Stations of the Cross and speaking to those joining the church at the Easter Vigil were very profound experiences. Singing the exulted and the Easter Alleluia moved me to my core. We are an Easter people. We are a people of hope.
We have set up a Caring Bridge page so you can journey with me these next few months. www.caringbridge.org/visit/johanvanparys
I know it will not be easy but I find great strength in the knowledge of God’s love and mercy and your prayers and concern. It is my hope to come out of this experience a better person and a stronger Christian.
And BTW (By The Way), if you want to know more about why we do what we do, you will have to come to my next lecture on the liturgy or read Ask Johan in our Basilica Magazine.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to celebrate Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion in one of the most iconic cathedrals in our country. This had been on my liturgical bucket list for a long time. I was not disappointed. It was an experience Egeria—a 4th century French nun who glowingly wrote about liturgical celebrations in Jerusalem—would have written about had she lived in our times.
As prescribed we gathered in “another place” for the first part of the liturgy. Then, we processed to the cathedral commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On our way we walked by several large cardboard boxes. Blinded by the beauty of the day, I had not noticed these until I nearly tripped over a man who crawled out of one of them. Apparently, the procession drew his attention, maybe even woke him up. He looked me square in the face and I shuddered under his intense gaze. Pushed forward by those behind me, we made a quick circle around him and continued on our splendid liturgical way.
When we entered the cathedral, the true quality of the liturgy was revealed. The Cardinal Archbishop himself was presiding flanked by auxiliary bishops and a throng of priests. The service was marked by exquisite music, beautiful vestments, countless candles, billowing incense… in sum, a liturgist’s delight. And yet, it was the man crawling out of the box who stuck with me.
His gaze haunted me throughout Holy Week. It was he I saw as I washed the feet of an elderly man and offered Holy Communion to a young woman on Holy Thursday. It was he I saw in the child who knelt down to kiss the wood of the cross on Good Friday. And it was he I saw in the many people who were baptized and confirmed on Holy Saturday. In all of these faces gathered for worship I saw one face, the face of the man living on the street. Then I realized his gaze forced the question: “Who do you say that I am?” And I wondered who it was I really saw?
During Holy Week, I customarily visualize the last days in the life of Jesus. I imagine Jesus walking down the streets of Jerusalem to the Hosanna’s on Palm Sunday and to the yelling of “crucify him” on Good Friday. I imagine him washing feet and sharing bread. I imagine him dying on the cross and rising from the dead. This truly helps me with my meditation on the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Every year, I leaf through my art books to be inspired by a different image of Jesus. That particular year, I was inspired not by art but by the dirty, bearded, and unkempt face of the man who crawled out of the box to visualize Jesus. And I realized that it is in the face of others that we recognize the true face of the one who is the Wholly Other.
As we prepare to celebrate the holiest of weeks, let us remember to recognize Christ in one another, most especially in those we unexpectedly encounter as we almost trip over them.
Blessed Holy Week!
The Basilica of Saint Mary has a magnificent set of bronze doors. Monsignor Reardon commissioned them in the 1950s to replace the original wooden doors. They are grand and shiny and to most, they are inviting.
All kinds of people make their way through those doors. They vary in race and in age, in social status and sometimes in creed. Some people fling open the grand doors and bask in the beauty of the building. Others move slowly, bent under the weight of many burdens. They hesitantly open the heavy doors and quietly slip through them. For others yet the doors are a physical barrier that prevents them from entering. Thankfully, some of our grand doors now are accessible to all.
Having passed through the doors, some people simply pause in awe. Others walk a familiar path to a beloved shrine where they light a candle and kneel down in silent prayer. Some people slide into a pew, pull down their hood and take a nap. Some come here to hide from the cold, or even to hide from the world.
The Basilica doors not only allow access to our building, they also symbolize our entrance into the Church, the Body of Christ. Families walk through them as they bring their babies for baptism. Young people with families in tow enter to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. Excited brides and eager grooms pass through these doors separately to merge from them together after the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage.
Seminarians in cassock and surplice, deacons in dalmatic, priests wearing chasuble, and mitered bishops pass through these doors to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Ailing and burdened people pass through them seeking forgiveness and healing. And at the end of our lives, our bodies are lovingly carried through these doors for a last visit to the church before we are laid to rest. Most people however pass through these doors in search of much needed spiritual nourishment as we come to celebrate Eucharist Sunday after Sunday.
The Christmas season is a great time to meditate on the doors of our Church as we remember how Mary and Joseph found the doors closed to them when they were looking for a place to spend the night. Locked out, they were forced to retreat into a cave or a stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus, the one who became the door to salvation for all humankind.
During this season we are invited to open wide our doors. We are invited to open wide the doors of our souls to Christ. We are invited to open wide the doors of our hearts to all who need our love. And we are invited to open wide the doors of our homes to all who need shelter.
And as Pope Francis reminds us over and over again, the Church ought to do the same. Too often, the beautifully crafted doors of our cathedrals, churches, and chapels are closed to too many people, literally as well as symbolically. Christ, the one who found the doors closed to him yet opened his heart to all asks the Church to do no less than that: to open wide our doors and welcome all. No matter where someone is on their earthly journey, they are welcome in the Church as the Church is not a palace for the privileged and perfect but rather a shelter for those who are suffering and searching.
May the beautiful doors of our Basilica never exist to keep people out, but rather be a constant invitation to the entire Body of Christ with all its bruises and burns to enter and find hope and healing.
On Sunday December 3 we celebrated the first Sunday in the Incarnation Cycle thus starting a new liturgical year. As every New Year, be that liturgical or other this is a time for new resolutions and new beginnings. The Incarnation Cycle comprises Advent, Christmas and Epiphany ending with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Advent comes from Adventus Domini, Latin for the “coming of the Lord.” Thus Advent is the season of preparation for the coming of the Lord. Often, this is understood to refer to the first coming of Jesus, meaning his birth. However, Adventus Domini refers not only to the advent of the Lord in the past, but also his presence today, and especially his appearance at the end of time. The season of Advent, therefore is a season filled with anticipation, not just for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus but also anticipation of current, future and final manifestations of Christ in our midst. Admittedly, the current manifestations are the most challenging. Our new sculpture of the Homeless Jesus is a true witness to that.
Christmas of course is the heart of the celebration of the Incarnation. The Word Christmas is derived from the Old English Cristes Maesse which means the Celebration of Christ or Christ’s feast. This implies that at Christmas we celebrate the mystery of Christ in its fullness, i.e. his birth, life, death and resurrection. Some Icons place the baby Jesus in a small sarcophagus inviting the beholder to contemplate the mystery that this little child brought salvation to the world.
The Solemnity of the Epiphany marks the last Sunday of this year’s Christmas Season. The word Epiphany is the English translation of the Greek epiphaneia, meaning appearance or manifestation. Three of the great moments of said revelation are the visitation by the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord and the Wedding at Cana when Jesus performed his first miracle. On this feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate how Jesus’ was revealed as The Christ in the past and how he continues to be revealed to us in the present.
This year, the Incarnation Season ends on January 8 with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, one of the above mentioned manifestations of Jesus as the Christ.
The next day we will return our crèches to their bins and place the Advent wreaths and Christmas trees on the curb with a mix of sadness and relief. Let us encourage one another though to keep the enthusiasm and joy at the birth of Jesus and his manifestation as The Christ alive in our hearts and in our communities.
Even more importantly, let us commit ourselves to be the hearts and hands of The Christ in the world today revealing his message of love and compassion to all. This message is very much needed in our world today. Instead of being agents of anger, hatred and division let us be angels of love, hope and peace. After all that is the message of Christmas and it is our message.
Have a blessed Advent and Christmas!
My brother Hans proudly sent me a photo of the grave marker he and his children created for the tomb of one of our beloved aunts. I did not know he was doing this. In the past, we have always bought tomb stones or markers at specialty shops. This time he decided to do it himself. When I asked him why he did this, he mentioned that he wanted to create something special for my aunt and he wanted to do it himself. They had a special bond.
The marker is really striking and it is unique. It is large and covers the entire tomb. Made out of metal it frames a central cross. Carefully selected succulents were planted inside the frame around the cross. Seasonal flowers will be added throughout the year. The marker thus testifies eloquently to our belief in the resurrection.
There is something really beautiful about this marker and the fact that my brother made it. It is the perfect final gift my brother gave to our beloved aunt. And, he thoughtfully readied it in time for the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, the time when Belgians—like many others throughout the world—visit the tombs of deceased loved ones and decorate them with flowers.
Our care and continued love for our deceased relatives and friends is rooted in our belief in the Resurrection and the Communion of Saints. As to the latter, the oldest known reference to the Communion of Saints can be found in the writings by Saint Nicetas who was bishop of Remesiana, Serbia, at the end of the fourth century. He described the Communion of the Saints as the spiritual union which exists between all the members of the Church, both the living and the dead. This union is made possible through our shared membership in the Mystical Body of Christ. Saint Paul wrote in several of his letters that through baptism we become part of the Body of Christ with Christ as its head.
The fruit of this union are the blessings in which all members share. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the good of each [member] is communicated to all the others.” (CCC,947) Therefore, even sinners share in the Communion of Saints and benefit from it.
At The Basilica, we celebrate our belief in the Communion of Saints every time we gather for worship, for we believe that not only those present but all Christians, living and deceased, gather spiritually whenever we gather for worship. During the month of November, we visualize this reality by placing Icons of the Saints in the sanctuary and photos of our beloved dead on the side altars.
The very presence of these Icons and photos both expresses and refreshes our belief in the Communion of Saints, the Mystical Body of Christ with Christ himself as the head. For an Icon is not only an image of the Saint it depicts, the saint in turn is an image of Christ himself. Similarly, we believe that the photos are not only an image of our deceased loved ones but also of Christ in whose mystical body they participate through baptism.
One of the first things I do whenever I travel to Belgium is to visit the tombs of my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles in our town’s cemetery. I look forward to seeing the marker on the tomb of my aunt, so lovingly made by my brother and such a testimony to our faith. May my auntie and all our beloved dead whom we remember especially during this month of November rest in peace.
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.”
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.
- 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 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.