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

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.

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.

 

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