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

Brother David Steindl-Rast is a 90+ year old Benedictine monk from Austria. In a 2015 interview with Krista Tippet of On Being he posited that every religion starts with some sort of miracle. Soon though, the miracle is cloaked in structures and institutions, developed to protect the miracle. Before long these structures and institutions not only protect but also obscure the miracle. Inevitably, the pains to safeguard the structures become more important than the efforts to reveal and celebrate the miracle.

Our miracle, or better, our Mystery is the empty tomb. It is the fact that God became one of us, lived among us, died for us, and rose from the dead so that we might live. That was the simple but profound experience and message of the earliest followers of Jesus. As the number of followers grew, structures had to be established. And as more questions were asked about our Mystery, theologies needed to be discussed and developed.

To date, we have some 2000 years worth of theological elucidation and ecclesiastical manifestation. And while these developed to portray, to protect and to promote our Mystery they have also done much harm to that very Mystery. When protecting the structures and institutions became more important than celebrating the Mystery, many scandals started to befall Christianity. Just think about the many divisions the Body of Christ has endured over the centuries. Had Christians paid more attention to our shared Mystery rather than the separating trappings around it we might be better off today. More recently, had the Church paid more attention to the Mystery of our Church rather than to the institution of the Church the evil of child abuse in our Church could have been addressed much earlier and with greater honesty.

Brother Steindl-Rast compares the beginnings of all religions with a Volcano. “There was fire, there was heat, there was light: the light of mystical insight, the glow of ethical commitment, and the fire of ritual celebration... But, as that stream of lava flowed down the sides of the mountain, it began to cool off and turn into rock. Dogmatism, moralism, ritualism: all are layers of ash deposits and volcanic rock that separate us from the fiery magma deep down below. But there are fissures and clefts in the rock. These represent the great men and women who reformed and renewed religious tradition from within. In one way or another, this is our task, too.”

During the Sacred Triduum we celebrated our Mystery: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We did that without great theological debate or ecclesiastical posturing. It was a simple and pure celebration of our Mystery. Let us hold on to that. Let us not be blinded by all the trappings and extravagance of our church, rather let us always behold and embrace our Mystery: the source of “mystical insight, the glow of ethical commitment, and the fire of ritual celebration.”

 

It is hard to believe that it has been a year since I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember the moment very well. Early that morning I underwent a routine scan. Following the scan I went for a lovely, though chilly walk in the Minnesota zoo. On my way to lunch I noticed that my physician had tried to call me several times. In the parking lot of the restaurant I called him back. Without much ceremony he told me I had a tumor in my abdomen. I must admit I was taken aback by this news. Needless to say, I did not make it to lunch.

March 26, 2018 was Monday of Holy week. Receiving my diagnosis at the beginning of this week made it all the more meaningful. Of course, I have always known that we celebrate the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and our incorporation in that mystery during Holy Week. But while that knowledge had been rather theoretical it suddenly became very real. Last year, I experienced the highlights of Holy Week such as the Washing of the Feet, the Celebration of the Eucharist, the Procession with the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday;  the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday; and the Easter Fire, Procession with Light, Exultet, readings, and baptisms during the Vigil on Holy Saturday with a new and greater depth than ever.

Most memorable for me was the Easter Alleluia. We fast from this beautiful word during the season of Lent. It is sung anew for the first time during the Easter Vigil. I have sung that first Easter Alleluia in our Basilica for over 20 years. Last Easter it was different. Last Easter, I felt it in my whole being. This beautiful and simple word is our exclamation and affirmation of our faith in the resurrection. As its stirring sound resonated throughout the church, I saw the heavens, there and then, break open in our midst. And all of you were there, with me in this heaven on earth. It was a most beautiful vision. One I will never forget. It gave me strength, and hope and assurance in my faith. And it supported me during my illness.

The next day, Easter Sunday we gathered in our St. Joseph Chapel for the celebration of the Sacrament of the Sick. Earlier that day we had shared my diagnosis with the Cathedral Choir and some of the liturgical ministers. They all joined some of my friends and colleagues for the sacrament. I have taught the Sacraments of the Sick at St. John’s University for many years. I know the theology and I know the rite. However, being on the receiving end of the sacrament gave me a totally different perspective. This is truly a healing sacrament. I felt lifted up, hopeful, almost joyous as Father Bauer anointed me and everyone laid their healing hands on me. It did help that the choir was present to support our singing and to offer a musical meditation. Some 6 months earlier we had asked Don Krubsack, our composer-in-residence to set parts of the rite to music. It was incredibly moving to hear this music enrich the celebration. At the conclusion everyone gathered around me and the choir sang a Hymn of Thanksgiving also composed by Don. The hymn ends with “give me one thing more: a grateful heart.” I could not think of a better line to end this service. As a matter of fact, that line accompanied me throughout my treatment and gave me strength. It accompanies me even today.

By the grace of God, the prayers and support of our community, and the hard work of my many caregivers I am now cancer free. And I so look forward to celebrating another Holy Week with all of you. I most especially anticipate the singing of the first Easter Alleluia during the Great Vigil on Easter Saturday. I am not sure if I will be able to do it without crying but try I will. And should I find myself unable to sing, I know that you will support me as you have done throughout my illness.

We are so blessed to belong to our Basilica community. We are so blessed to have our faith. We are so blessed to have one another. May this Lent and Easter bring us ever closer to our loving God, saving Christ and guiding Spirit.

And so you know, this week I will return to the zoo for a brisk walk and I will go back to the same restaurant to enjoy the lunch I missed out on one year ago.

God is good. God is very good.

This truly has been a horrible year for our Church. As a matter of fact, it has been many horrible years in a row. The leadership of the Church I trust has betrayed us. The leadership of the Church I love has deceived us. The leadership of the Church I believe in has misled us. 

In light of this, many people have asked me why I stay. It is a perfectly good question. There have been times I found myself at the threshold of the Church, ready to walk out. Yet, every time something happened that ushered me back in. I still smile at the memory of a young immigrant woman who was so elated to be baptized that she did not want to get out of the font. I rejoice every time ecstatic young couples bring their newly born babies to Church for baptism, filled with hope for a bright future. And I still ache for the family who entrusted me with their pain and sorrow at the unexpected passing of their young son, eager for solace and support.

Why do I stay? I stay because I believe in the saving message of the Gospel. I stay because I am strengthened and nourished by the liturgy. And I stay because I sense a profound connection with you, the Body of Christ, the People of God. 

I stay because of my love for the Gospel. The Gospel truly is my guide and rudder on my journey. All of us carry our share of pain and suffering. And our world as a whole is in great agony. There are wars, civil unrest, natural disasters, disease, hunger, loneliness. Left to our own devices we are clearly unable to escape this spiral of death. The Gospel, when interpreted correctly, is an absolute antidote to all the evil that seems to control our world today. The Gospel is a most effective guide in our struggle to save humanity and all of creation. Such is the power of the Gospel.

I stay because of my love for the liturgy. At the Easter Vigil I offer the Blood of Christ to the newly baptized. Inevitably I have to fight back tears as I look the neophytes into the eyes and say “The Body of Christ.” As they share in the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time their sharing in the Church as the Body of Christ is confirmed. From that moment on the liturgy becomes their source of much needed direction, affirmation, and nourishment, as it is to all of us. It is in the liturgy that we are rehearsed in what it means to be followers of Christ. It is in the liturgy that God molds us into being more like Christ. It is in the liturgy that our communion of shared existence is nourished and affirmed. We may not experience this every time we gather for worship but it happens, whether we realize it or not. Such is the power of the liturgy.

I stay because of my love for you. Throughout my journey with cancer you have supported me. You have made me food. You have brought me to appointments. You have sat with me during my infusions. You have sent me cards and flowers. And above all you have supported me with your prayers. Every Sunday night as I wrote thank you notes I was deeply moved by the great support you offered to me. And I was reminded that we are the Body of Christ. We are the People of God. We are the Salt of the Earth. We are the Light of the World. It is our shared calling to change our suffering world into what God intends it to be. It is also our shared calling to change our suffering church into what God intends it to be. Such is the power of the Body of Christ.

It has indeed been a run of horrible years for the church. Anyone who has studied the history of our church knows that we have been here before, not in the same circumstances but in crisis. When we have been willing to follow the often surprising movements of the Holy Spirit we have risen from our crisis stronger and purified. This is our time and our chance to trust in the Holy Spirit and embrace the inevitable and necessary change with faith, hope and love. That is why I stay.

Our Homeless Jesus sculpture has received quite a bit of media attention recently. Apparently the press learned  that an ambulance had been dispatched to The Basilica thinking that a person was sleeping on the bench. This story did not surprise me. I have personally witnessed first responders getting out of an ambulance ready to help the person on the bench, only to realize that it was a sculpture. I watched them use their phones to take some pictures, maybe to alert their colleagues.

The artist, Timothy Schmalz intentionally created a very realistic sculpture which he hoped would push us to face the persistent problem of homelessness. As I write this letter it is -28 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in these temperatures some people will have no choice but to spend the night outside.

I know that not everyone loves our Homeless Jesus. Some people think we should not represent the resurrected Jesus in the image of a homeless person. However, by depicting Jesus as a homeless person or more importantly, being asked to see Jesus in homeless people we simply illustrate the message of Matthew 25: ““Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Others have argued that the money spent on the Homeless Jesus should have been used to alleviate the suffering of those in need. The Basilica has a very strong commitment to helping all those in need. Our approach is two-pronged: alleviation and education. Thus, on the one hand we offer direct help to those in need and we work to change systems that cause and perpetuate poverty and inequality.  On the other hand we are also intent on changing people’s heart and mind so that they too might be moved to help those in need. And that is exactly what the Homeless Jesus intends to do:  change people’s heart and mind.

The sculpture is not so much about the bronze Jesus it represents, but rather about the suffering person in whom we ought to recognize Jesus. Many of us are a bit more like Peter than like Mary. Peter courageously declared to Jesus that he would never leave him, and yet he denied knowing Jesus after his arrest and he ran away when Jesus was crucified. By contract without making grandiose statements, Mary, the Mother of Jesus together with Mary of Magdala and John the Beloved stayed with him. They were not able to prevent his death but they stayed with him even as he was dying on the cross.

We received Homeless Jesus last November. Since then we have seen people quietly sitting on the bench next to him with their hands placed on his pierced feet. We have found flowers and a lit candle left beside him. And just a few weeks ago as the winter was setting in, someone lovingly covered him with a red blanket. It is our hope that the Homeless Jesus will move us to similar and even greater acts of kindness not just to the sculpture but more importantly to the people it represents.

 

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.

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