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

Memories Old and New

My early years in Minneapolis were not always easy as I greatly missed my family and friends in Belgium. Christmas time was particularly difficult. So, I was very glad to host my late parents in December of 1996. They had never experienced the amount of cold and snow we get in Minnesota. We actually had to get them some appropriate coats and hats and mittens. Surprisingly, they took to it and showed me to find joy in every season, even in winter. They returned every year for a visit until my father’s death in 2002, albeit never again in the winter. My dear friend, the late Fr. André Laurier, S.M.M., spent Christmas 1998 with me. He too liked it here, no matter the season and returned many times. That Christmas André taught me a lesson which I treasure to this day.

André arrived the Friday before Christmas. On Saturday, we spent the day decorating the Christmas tree in my house. It was a lovely robust and fragrant blue spruce. Carefully unpacking each ornament, I told its story. Many stories resonated with André because he knew the Belgian people and places I was talking about. When we were all finished we went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. From the kitchen, a terrific noise called us back to the living room where we found the tree on the floor surrounded by shattered glass. André quietly cleaned up, carefully gathering the ornaments that had survived and collecting the pieces of those that shattered. Heartbroken, I needed to excuse myself. When I finally emerged from my room-and my sour mood—I found the tree back in place, the surviving ornaments ready to be hung, and the table set. We had a quiet dinner together and talked of all things Belgian.

The next day, when I returned home from Sunday liturgies, I found the tree decorated with the surviving ornaments and some new ornaments ready to be hung. Cleverly, André had bought some clear glass ornaments which he filled with the remnants of the broken ornaments. 

Later that day, as we sat down to admire the tree, André noted that the many memories had proven too much for the tree and that maybe it was time to let go of some old memories in order to make room for new ones. “It is not that you have to let go completely” he said, “you can hold on to bits and pieces, but you need to make room for more.” And so I did! 

My Christmas tree today is adorned with many ornaments. Some of the ornaments are old, reminding me of Belgium, but many of them are new, bearing the memories of my travels, my friends, and my Basilica life. And, still to this day, I treasure the clear glass ornaments filled with bits and pieces of old and treasured memories. Had it not been for André, who has since died, I wouldn’t have learned this great lesson of embracing and letting go; of seeing in the broken, the beauty of the future.

And though I still miss my Belgian family and friends at Christmas, I have totally embraced my new family and friends here in Minneapolis. I am so grateful for all of you, especially this Advent Season.

May you and your loved ones rejoice in the many blessings this season brings.

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.

Miracles Do Happen

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.

 

 

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