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

Growing up I dreaded Lent. I did not particularly care to fast and abstain from things I enjoyed. What was the point? More emphasis on prayer seemed impossible. Almsgiving I did not quite get. Banning all decorations from church and covering statues with huge cloths seemed silly. And the Lenten sermons were downright scary. It all made for an unpleasant and gloomy experience. I had the sense that a dark cloud covered me for six weeks as I lived under the heavy burden of Lent, trying to do everything I was supposed to do.

​It took me a while to understand what Lent was really about. My first mistake was that I thought Lent was all about me. I had to pray more. I had to give up things. I had to give alms. I failed to realize that Lent was not about me, but rather about the entire body of Christ. My second mistake was that I idolized the disciplines of Lent: praying, fasting, almsgiving while I failed to see that these were mere mechanisms toward the greater goal of bringing about a change of heart for the betterment of the Body of Christ.

Lent helps us to break out of the safety of our comfortable and self-centered world so we may encounter those around us. Our Lenten prayer then is not to be about ourselves. Rather, we pray for the well-being of others and we pray that we may be more generous toward others. Our Lenten fasting is not about depriving ourselves but rather about embracing a simpler lifestyle which in turn profits those who are in need. Our Lenten almsgiving is not about the satisfaction of giving from our excess but about freeing ourselves from worldly possessions which in turn allows others a greater share in the world’s riches.

Recently, Pope Francis asked a very poignant question: do we toss alms at a beggar, from afar or do we look him in the eyes as we place the money in his hands. This seemingly simple question touches on the essence of our Lenten journey. The moment we look a beggar in the eyes and touch her hand she becomes a person rather than a problem. It takes little effort to give alms. It is much more difficult to acknowledge the person asking for alms. Yet in that moment, in that encounter we cannot but be changed and become more like Christ.

Our Lenten experience will be fruitful only when we turn toward one another, look one another in the eyes, touch one another’s hands and recognize that all of us together make up the one Body of Christ. Once we truly embrace this, then we will be ready to fully celebrate the Easter mysteries.

The Cross

Yesterday, I saw a young woman with crosses as earrings and at least a dozen rosaries around her neck. She reminded me of a scene that played out many years ago. My younger brother came home from university with a small silver crucifix dangling from his ear. Without saying a word my mom walked over to him and took it out of his ear. To this day I am not sure what displeased my mom the most, the fact that he had his ear pierced or the fact that he wore a cross as an earring?
 
Basilica Crucifixion
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Basilica Crucifixion
The cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. However, as is the case with many things we now take for granted, it has not always been thus. It took a while before the cross and especially the crucifix or any other depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints were accepted. Two factors were at play.

First, early Christians displayed a general timidity toward imagery at best and engaged in the occasional full-fledged period of Iconoclasm at worst. It was not until the second council of Nicea (878) that matters were settled once and for all. After tumultuous debates, this council not only denounced iconoclasm it also called for the depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints with the admonition that when one adores an image one really adores the one represented by the image.

Second, the death of Jesus on the cross was neither expected by his followers nor was it readily embraced. Death by crucifixion was one of the worst condemnations. Roman citizens, e.g. could not be punished by crucifixion. In a sense, the cross was experienced as a scandal and an embarrassment. So they concentrated on the Resurrection, rather than on the death of Jesus.

Gradually the Christian community came to embrace the scandal of the cross as the paradox of the mystery of salvation. By the early 3rd century the cross had become closely associated with Christianity. Clement of Alexandria who died c. 215 referred to the cross as τ κυριακν σημεον  or the Lord's sign. And according to Tertullian who died c. 225 Christians are crucis religiosi or devotees of the Cross.

Today the cross is ubiquitous and it is undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol in the entire world. We top our church steeples with crosses. We hang crosses in our homes, in our cars and around our necks. We even tattoo crosses on our bodies. Most often this is done in good faith and in good taste. Sometimes it is done in a misguided attempt at unfortunate fashion. In some instances the cross is intentionally desecrated.

Let’s take consolation in the fact that by the cross we have been saved and nothing can take that away, not even ill-advised use or worse, malicious abuse. 

Is there such a thing as bad sacred art? 

Though seemingly a contradiction in terms this is a question that is often posed and pondered. 20 years ago I would have answered “yes” without much explanation. And, I would have happily slipped you a catalogue of what to avoid. 

Living in the proverbial ivory tower I was convinced that only “high art” could be considered sacred art. The occasional accusation of elitism had little impact on my thinking. Surely, no-one could ever deny that such world famous art as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are sacred art of the highest quality? And who would dare to argue that glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary were sacred art? The lines between good and bad sacred art were clear to me and they needed to be drawn.

Art Painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Our Lady of Guadalupe by WULFF, 2012
My thinking started to change when I was gifted a somewhat unusual representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Intrigued but not impressed I placed it with the other dubious sacred art I have received over the years. And yet, every time I walked by it I was drawn to it. The image kept beckoning me until I gave in and considered it more closely. To the surprise of many, we ended up exhibiting it in our gallery. When a friend saw it there, he admitted that he had always thought of this image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as just one of my religious tchotchkes. Seeing it under glass and in good lighting he finally realized it was sacred art. And so did I.
 

Thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe and all she stands for I became less rigorous and more forgiving when it comes to sacred art. Nevertheless, not everything goes. I still hold that there indeed is such a thing a bad sacred art. 

When considering sacred art I look for three qualities. First, sacred art needs to be authentic art. This requires an authentic esthetic as well as the use of authentic materials. In the past I thought certain esthetics or styles superior to others. Today I realize that the church is quite correct when upholding that there is no superior style, but that each period and region necessarily provides its own form of authentic art in response to the needs of each specific time and place. 

Second, sacred art needs to have a sacred message. This is easily accomplished in figurative art that depicts the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints. But what about abstract art that deals with such religious notions as light and darkness or life and death? Can this be considered sacred art? Since certain abstract art forces us to deal with deeply religious matters like life and death it truly has a sacred message, though this may not be obvious to everyone, at least not at first.

Third, sacred art needs to be able to communicate its sacred message. In other words, people need to be able to be inspired by sacred art and receive its sacred message. What makes this aspect of sacred art difficult to grasp is that all of us have different intellectual interests and spiritual sensibilities. As a result we are moved by different kinds of art. Some people may be inspired by a bad print of bad religious art while they are supremely untouched by a great work of sacred art. Other people may find abstract art intensely spiritual while a graphic depiction the martyrdom of an obscure saint, though by definition sacred does nothing for them. This reality ought to make us more generous when considering sacred art because the fact that one person is spiritually moved by an image does not necessarily make it sacred art.  At the same time, the fact that a person is not moved by a certain image does not necessarily make it bad sacred art. In either case, the beholder should not absolutize his or her personal experience of the art.

So, what to do about the questionable religious art you harbor in your home? Please consider the three above mentioned qualities of sacred art. Should you find your art lacking I suggest you do one of two things. Either you store it with your beloved, yet secret velvet image of Elvis Presley. Or you send it to me and who knows, one day it may appear in an exhibit. And as my friend and I discovered, when placed in a glass vitrine under beautiful lighting, what was once thought a mere tchotchke may turn out to be fine art.

 

St. Blaise

“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr with the traditional blessing of the throats.

The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.

From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.

Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats on his feast day. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat and to present such ailments.

According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Thus two candles are used during the blessing of the throats. These candles are blessed the previous day on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. They are often held together by a red ribbon and placed around the neck of the person being blessed. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise.

Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing not unlike other sacramentals such as the sprinkling with Holy Water remain popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.

Candles at Mass
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Candlemas

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2) or Candlemas is one of the lesser known feasts in our church today. Its history is complex and rich yet because it most often falls on a weekday very few people even are aware of it. Nevertheless, I have very fond memories of this feast which go back all the way to my childhood. 

Our family would attend early morning Mass on that day. Upon entering the church we received a candle, one per family. After the priest said a prayer and sprinkled Holy Water we walked around the church in procession. As the oldest child I was tasked with carrying our family’s candle. My current fondness of processions probably dates back to those Candlemas celebrations when I carried the candle under the watchful eye of my parents and the envious glances of my siblings. After Mass we were encouraged to take our candle home and to care for it with reverence. The priest told us to light the candle in times of need. I distinctly remember lighting our candle when my great-grandfather was mortally ill while we prayed for his recovery. We also found some solace in this candle once he died. We even would light the candle and huddle around it during bad storms. It made us less afraid.

Many years later, when living in a Benedictine abbey we celebrated the day with even greater ceremony as the candles were bigger, the procession was longer and the sung psalms were more numerous. We started the celebration in the chapter room. After the lighting and blessing of our candles we processed through the entire cloister into the church while singing Lumen ad revelationem gentium or A light of revelation to the Nations. I can still hear the sounds, see the sights and smell the burning wax which even overpowered the copious amounts of incense used for the procession.

Candle procession
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Procession with candle

Memories are great yet they need to be interpreted carefully. My childhood experience of the feast reveals profound truths but maybe there was a hint of superstition which tainted the use of the candles at home. Or was it the result of a more generous and less complicated faith?  My monastic memories, again revelatory of deep faith undoubtedly suffer from some liturgical romanticism.

The essence of the feast is this: Christ is the Light of the world and we are to witness to the Light in word and deed. The candles are a tangible symbol of the light of Christ. And  the procession is not just a pretty parade rather it symbolizes and rehearses us in our calling to bring Christ’s light to the world.

As a child I always wished we could keep the candle burning throughout the liturgy and even on our way home. I did not quite know why but I thought it made sense. I still imagine this grand procession of all Christians leaving their respective churches on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or any feast for that matter with lit candle in hand, proclaiming to the world that Christ is the Light and we bear witness to Him in word and deed.

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