Johan van Parys

Director of Liturgy & Sacred Arts

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

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!

Bronze Door of Basilica

Open Wide Your Gates!

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.”