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

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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

Full Weekly Newsletter 

Last year we were gifted a new bronze sculpture by Peter Walker, entitled Pity of War. You can find this striking image near the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is a maquette for a much larger sculpture that is yet to be cast.

Peter Walker is a British artist who works in many different media including drawing, painting, sculpture, film, light and sound installations, etc. His works can be found in cities throughout the United Kingdom and around the world. LuxMuralis, e.g. one of his light and sound installations was at the Cathedral of Saint Paul last December.

Peter Walker is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. He is artist-in-Residence at Lichfield Cathedral. Pity of War was conceived to join the memorials for different causes scattered among some 25,000 trees in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in Great Britain. 

Pity of War is intended to honor the millions of nameless and voiceless and forgotten victims of war and human atrocities whose lives were upended against their will. The sculpture honors those bereaved by loss of loved ones, of their home or property; those who were forced to flea and now live in refugee camps or were forced to move to lands other than their own where they are more or less welcome; those who are suffering from post-traumatic distress and lifelong disabilities.

Pity of War depicts the head of a young child. Her eyes are strikingly bound and her mouth is shown shockingly silenced by abstraction and even by the removal of certain features such as her mouth and ears. Without words the image commands attention and draws the beholder into the narrative.

In Peter’s words, Pity of War is “not only about the past, but about the present and the future. It is both a commemoration and a challenge.” Since we received Pity of War I have been able to spend time with it. The sculpture really speaks to me. It has given me solace as I have come to it with a heavy heart wondering if we will ever get it right. Sitting with the sculpture I have pondered our broken world and our apparent inability to stop ourselves from adding on to the brokenness time after time.

And though it was conceived to commemorate victims of war I started to rename the sculpture: Pity of Violence; Pity of Abuse; Pity of Intolerance; Pity of Bigotry; Pity of White Supremacy; Pity of Racism.

I welcome Peter’s words that this sculpture is not only a memorial to past victims. It is also, and maybe even more importantly a challenge to all of us today; a challenge to be better; a challenge to work for change; a challenge to end all wars, violence, abuse, bigotry, supremacy and racism.

I am very grateful to add this sculpture to our art collection here at The Basilica of Saint Mary during these times filled with challenge and hope. I only wish it was much larger so that it might speak even more loudly to even more people.

When you visit The Basilica next, please visit Pity of War and let this sculpture speak to you. It is my hope that it will help us in our mission to change hearts and promote the values of equity, diversity and inclusivity.

 

 

 

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