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

During the season of Advent we place a statue of the Blessed Mother at the center of the Advent Wreath in our St. Joseph Chapel. I invite you to visit her during this wonderful season. You will see that this lovely statue depicts Mary, pregnant with the baby Jesus. She has her head slightly bowed and her eyes are closed. There is a faint hint of a smile on her lips. Her hands are folded across her heart. She seems peaceful, humbly yet resolutely accepting her mission to become the Mother of God. I have always wondered what might have gone on under the pious veneer of this statue. What was Mary really doing and thinking while expecting the birth of Jesus.

Advent is said to be the season of waiting. Mary awaiting the birth of her son embodies the kind of waiting we are expected to do. Like Mary’s waiting, Advent waiting is not a passive anticipation for whatever is to come. It is a waiting that is full of hope and expectation. It is a waiting that is marked by some level of consternation and trepidation. And it is a waiting that requires anticipation and preparation. 

And though the kind of waiting is similar, Mary awaited the birth of Jesus while we await his return. For us, the celebration of the birth of Jesus is the anticipation of his return and the fulfilment of the promise he embodies.

During advent we await his promise of light proclaimed to a world spiraling into ever greater darkness. And as we await the fullness of light we must fight the darkness. 
During advent we await his promise of love proclaimed to a world devoured by violence, kindled by rapidly spreading hatred. And as we await the fullness of love we must fight all forms of hatred.

During advent we await his promise of life proclaimed to a world that is consumed by a culture of death and on the brink of ecological collapse. And as we await the fullness of life we must fight the evil forces of death.

Advent is a reminder of our human calling and capacity to embrace light, to foster love and to promote life. However, as human history has proven over and over again these three human and Christian values are not easily attained and come at a cost. So, like Mary who prepared for the birth of her son we need to prepare for his return. We do this with hope and anticipation, preparation and some trepidation. 

As we work together to turn darkness into light; hatred into love and death into life we can be assured that the hope-filled words of the Prophet Isaiah we read on this third Sunday of Advent will be fulfilled: 

“The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

I remember the 2016 closing Eucharist for the Holy Year of Mercy well. We were in Rome with our Schola Cantorum to sing at St. Peter’s Basilica. At the end of the liturgy Pope Francis unexpectedly announced the establishment of a World Sunday of the Poor as a way to live out the Holy Year of Mercy into the future. 

In the Apostolic Letter, Misericordia et misera Pope Francis wrote that marking a World Sunday of the Poor on the 33rd Sunday of the liturgical year “would be the worthiest way to prepare for the celebration of the 34th and last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of Christ the King who identified with the little ones and the poor and who will judge us on our works of mercy” (cf. Mt 25:31-46). He expressed his hope that it would be a day to “help communities and each of the baptized to reflect on how poverty is at the very heart of the Gospel and that, as long as Lazarus lies at the door of our homes (cf. Lk 16:19-21), there can be no justice or social peace.”

For every World Sunday of the Poor Pope Francis has written a message. In this year’s message, entitled “The hope of the poor will not perish for ever” (Ps 9:19).  Francis holds that our world desperately needs God’s love made visible by “the saints next door.” 

Pope Francis affirms our Christian duty to provide those who are hungry with food and those who are homeless with shelter. It is our Christian duty to work hard to change the systems and politics that favor a few over the many and perpetuate the endless cycles of poverty. However, he also writes that people who are living in desperate situations need more than that. They “need our hands, to be lifted up; our hearts, to feel anew the warmth of affection; our presence, to overcome loneliness. In a word, they need love.” 

For political and sometimes religious reasons people in need are often reduced to statistics we cite when discussing the success or failure of our works and projects. However, rather than statistics those who are in need are “persons waiting to be encountered;” they are young and old people waiting to be offered a meal; they are men and women who look for a friendly word. In turn they “enable us to encounter the face of Jesus Christ.”

On November 19, 2017, the first World Day of the Poor we dedicated our Homeless Jesus sculpture by Timothy Schmalz. Today, this sculpture can be found in almost 100 cities throughout the world, including Vatican City. On this third World Day of the Poor all of us who are home to a Homeless Jesus will mark this day by rededicating. While doing that we not only express our love for this work of art but more importantly we recommit ourselves to work toward ending homelessness, hunger, poverty and injustice in our world by accepting the invitation to encounter Christ in the face of all those who are in need.

May the Homeless Jesus and Mary, Untier of Knots guide us on our way.

“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

These last Sundays of the liturgical year are filled with apocalyptic imagery as they speak about the end of time. This is intended to gradually prepare us for the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, the Solemnity of Christ the King. My granny Yolanda loved and hated these Sundays, for on the one hand she anticipated the end of time while on the other hand she feared it. Her big question always was: “When I see God face-to-face will my faith have been deep enough and my love been generous enough?”

Today’s Gospel ends with a somewhat ominous question: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8) This question or a similar question: “Are people losing their faith” is on the mind of many of us. Several studies on religious behavior indicate that there is a clear downward trend in terms of religious identification. Many churches see their congregations grow older and smaller and eventually have to close. And where in the past the Catholic Church wielded great influence in many parts of the world, that is no longer the case today. Is this cause for alarm?

In an interview with America Magazine, recently created Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J. stated that the Church “is not here to run the world… but the world should feel that the Church, that Christ, that God is with us, with them, as we face the great difficulties of our lives and of our times.” He went on to say that the mission of the Church “is the embodiment or the implementation of the Gospel in human society and human history. That is what we are really about.” In other words, we are foremost called to be Christ in the world, not to explain Christ to the world or impose Christ on the world.

So, when Christ returns at the end of time will He find faith on earth? He may not find a lot of people who are able to speak to the fineries of Christology or Pneumatology. But hopefully he will find many of us embodying and implementing the Gospel in our world. And paraphrasing the Gospel of Matthew: by our fruits He will know us (Matt. 7:20). For indeed, “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est” or “Where true charity is, there is God.” So let’s not dwell on loss of power or numbers and let us commit ourselves to embodying the Gospel so others will take note of us and want to learn about what motivates us, i.e. our faith, not unlike what happened during the time of the Apostles. Words rarely convert, actions do.

So, in response to today’s Gospel question and in anticipation of the end of time I think I will adopt my granny’s question yet turn it around a bit:  “When I see God face-to-face will my love have been generous enough and my faith been deep enough?"

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.

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