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

Nestled in the north-west corner between The Basilica, the sacristy, and the rectory sits The Basilica’s Mary Garden, a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered or discovered anew. Last Saturday, Karen Harrison and Wanda Sweeney were busy at work in the garden tidying it up in anticipation of the beginning of the month of May, dedicated to the Blessed Mother. They tend the garden lovingly and faithfully all year long. 

The Basilica of Saint Mary is one of only a handful of churches in the United States that has a true Mary Garden. Often people mistakenly think that any garden with a statue of Mary in it is a Mary Garden. Rather, they are much more complex than that and mostly void of a statue.

Mary Gardens originated in Medieval France and its surrounding countries. The basic concept is an enclosed garden known as a hortus conclusus referencing the virginity of Mary. Each flower in the garden represents one of Mary’s virtues. The Lily, e.g. represents Mary’s purity; the Bleeding Heart represents Mary’s sorrow; Solomon’s Seal represents Mary’s wisdom; Gilly Flower represents Mary’s fidelity; and Violets represent Mary’s modesty, to name but a few. The Garden as a whole thus symbolizes Mary with all her strengths and virtues. 

Mary Gardens traditionally do not have a statue of Mary in them as the garden itself is intended to be a representation of Mary. And different from praying before a statue of Mary, believers enter the garden and, aided by the colors and fragrance of the flowers, they spiritually immerse themselves in Mary’s virtues while praying that her virtues may become theirs.  

The idea for a Mary Garden at The Basilica of Saint Mary was proposed by the Friends of the Basilica of Saint Mary, now known as The Basilica Landmark. After years of study and planning, The Basilica’s Mary Garden became reality in 1997. Staying as true as possible to the medieval concept, the original design was done by Stacy Moriarty of Moriarty/Cordon. Given the difference in climate and the specifics of the shady location of our garden, the traditional selection of plants did not thrive. Thus, after careful consideration and with due respect to the original design, the Garden was enhanced in 2008 with the help of Brad Agee of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota to include more hardy plants. Standing in the tradition of those who assigned Mary’s virtues to the original selection of plants, Mary Ritten recognized and described Marian virtues in the newly selected plants, more suited for our Minnesota winters. 

The Basilica’s Mary Garden thus is a reinterpretation of the traditional French Mary Garden adapted to our Minnesota weather, no less inspired and no less inspirational. To give but a few examples, sweet autumn clematis, a vigorous vine speaks to Mary’s tenacity and courage while facing her many trials. The yellow flowers in Mary’s Mantle remind us of the radiance of Mary as a source of consolation. The roses are a clear reference to Mary’s title in the Litany of Loretto as Rosa Mystica or Mystical Rose. 

Though originally intended to have no representation of Mary in the Garden, Beckoning, a bronze sculpture by Gloria Tew was installed in the garden in the year 2000. This was in response to multiple requests for a statue of Mary. However, in order to be true to the original concept of a Mary Garden, the sculpture is semi-abstract and intentionally ambiguous. 

Her placement in the garden and the way she holds her hands can indeed be interpreted as Mary inviting us in. It may also be understood as a more abstract representation of hospitality and invitation. Regardless of who you might think she is, her goal and ours is that you enter the Mary Garden especially during this month of May dedicated to Mary and spend some time in it. Inspired by its beauty, we invite you to meditate on the virtues of Mary represented by the flowers in the garden and to pray that her virtues may become yours.

The Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Dublin, Ireland houses a somewhat unusual relic. It is not a bit of bone, a bead of blood or a strand of hair of the most revered saint of Ireland after whom the cathedral was named. Rather, it is an old door with a rectangular cut-out, large enough to put one’s hand through. It is known as the Door of Reconciliation.

Ireland’s history, not unlike that of most countries is characterized by feuds and fights between rival groups in search of power and wealth. The late 15th C. Earls of Kildare and Ormond were great rivals and were constantly at odds. In 1492 this culminated in a veritable fight. The Earl of Ormond, pursued by the Earl of Kildare sought sanctuary in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. When the Earl of Kildare arrived he pulled out his sword and started to attack the door to the cathedral’s chapterhouse where the Earl of Ormond was hiding. Rather than destroy the entire door he merely cut a whole in the door. To everyone’s surprise he then put his arm through the hole as a sign of peace, risking his limb and his life. The Earl of Ormond accepted the Earl of Kildare’s offer and shook his hand, sealing the peace. Hence the expression: “chancing your hand.” Today, the Door of Reconciliation stands in celebration of those who promote peace and reconciliation as well as in defiance to all those who sow hatred and who promote conflict.

As I was gazing upon this old peace of wood, the meaning of which is lost to most uninterested passersby, I was reminder of the Doors of Mercy designated in every cathedral and in many churches throughout the world during this Year of Jubilee. These Doors of Mercy are by necessity Doors of Reconciliation because mercy and reconciliation go hand in hand. Without mercy, there can be no reconciliation.  In turn, mercy presumes reconciliation.

Like the Door of Reconciliation in Dublin, these Doors of Mercy are patient reminders and invitations to each one of us to look at our lives and seek out opportunities for reconciliation and mercy, be they small and easy or large and difficult. The Doors of Mercy also invite us to look beyond ourselves at the greater world, marked by conflicts and divisions. We are to reach across aisles and beyond borders “chancing our hand” thus participating in the Divine quest for human reconciliation and peace.

Pope Francis, since the very beginning of his pontificate has been a champion of mercy, reconciliation and peace. Time and time again, he has modeled how we are to take risks, to “chance our hand” for the sake of mercy, reconciliation and peace. Just remember his first apostolic visit outside of Rome to the Italian Island of Lampedusa, one of the symbols of the current immigration crisis. There, he decried the “globalization of indifference” and invited nations and parishes to reach out to those searching for a better life. On Holy Thursday he has taken to washing the feet of those living on the margins of society regardless of their gender, religion, or ethnic background. This year, after washing the feet of refugees he remarked that though we may come from different cultures and profess different religions we are all brothers and sisters who together must strive for peace. Most recently, Pope Francis, together with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians, and Ieronimos II, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens visited the Greek Island of Lesbos, another symbol of the Immigrant crisis. Again re-affirming the fact that all of us are sisters and brother, no matter our cultural and religious differences he said: “barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples, and divisions sooner or later lead to confrontations.”

Breaking down barriers, building bridges and reaching out a hand in friendship is not always easy, often involves a risk and always requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Things may go wrong. And yet, we must “chance our hand” if ever there be a chance of reconciliation and peace among the different nations and peoples, for we are all brothers and sisters, no matter our culture or religion.

When you go to Dublin next, do make a pilgrimage to the Door of Reconciliation and when in Minneapolis or St. Paul visit our Doors of Mercy.



A while ago I was asked to preside at a communion service. Since this came a bit unexpected I was not too pleased but accepted nonetheless. Soon I realized that this request was a blessing in disguise. The Gospel of the day ended with these verses: “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you. To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark: 4:24-25)

I had always struggled with this passage because I thought the last verse referred to material wealth. For a person who champions the poor, how could Jesus suggest that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer? This superficial reading of Scripture, of course got me in trouble. Jesus was not speaking of wealth rather he was speaking about love and mercy. Those who have love and mercy will receive love and mercy in turn. This admonition is accompanied by a not-so-subtle warning as Jesus says that we will be measured by the measure we use for one another. In other words, if we treat others with love and mercy, that is how we will be treated.

This Biblical passage came to mind immediately as I was pondering indulgences. Admittedly, I am a bit hesitant tackling the topic. I neither have the desire to provoke another reformation nor do I want to upset those who hold on to bygone beliefs. At the same time the Year of Mercy and the Indulgences that are attached to its spiritual exercises are a perfect opportunity to ponder the mystery of indulgences.

The word indulgence is derived from the Latin words indulgentia which means remission and from indulgentum which means kind, tender, fond. These two Latin roots are very important because an indulgence on the one hand speak of God’s kindness, tenderness and fondness of us. On the other hand an indulgence is the assurance of the complete remission of sin and the satisfaction of any temporal punishment incurred.

The concept of indulgences was the answer to some ambiguity which surrounded the sacrament of reconciliation. The absolution we receive after confessing our sins is predicated on the penance we do. Penance in essence is a spiritual practice intended for people to grow in their faith. Sadly, a more negative and legalistic meaning was quickly attached to penance as it was reduced to some kind of satisfaction for the sins we committed. This gave rise to several questions. How much satisfaction does God require for any given sin? How can we be assured that the penance given by a priest is enough to make up for the sin we committed? And if not, will we be required to do penance even after death? Purgatory was understood as the “place” where we make up for the lack of penance done on earth, before eventually being admitted into heaven.

It is within this context that indulgences developed. Acknowledging God’s mercy indulgences are the assurance that the penance given to a person is sufficient and that this person is not going to purgatory after death.

Fanned by fear and fed by naiveté abuses arose and these have plagued indulgences for centuries. The essential problem with indulgences was that they were divorced from the underlying theology in favor of a purely legalistic approach. In addition, the original conditions were removed from indulgences so that the sacrament of reconciliation which is an essential part of indulgences was skipped. The process of personal conversion was completely circumvented by this and indulgences turned into a commodity that could be bought and sold. The problem with this is that God’s mercy can neither be bought nor sold. God’s mercy is gratuitous.

It was with this abuse that the reformers of the faith took issue. Johann Tetzel, a German friar is said to have composed the following telling couplet which scandalized many a reformer: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” As one of his 95 objections against Rome Martin Luther wrote: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”

In response, the Counter Reformation, not surprisingly affirmed the practice of indulgences while trying to right the wrongs. This has not been an easy process and the very word makes certain Catholics cringe. Despite a call for the abolishment of indulgences during the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI reaffirmed them and so did his successors.

Quoting from Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 141 states that “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt already has been forgiven… An indulgence is partial or plenary as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin… Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.”

Though some were surprised by Pope Francis’s embrace of indulgences he may actually be the one to save them as he has turned away from a legal understanding to a much richer theological understanding. Indulgences are really the celebration and affirmation of God’s mercy and indulgence in us. This mercy can neither be bought nor sold. God’s mercy is totally gratuitous in the face of which we can do nothing but show gratitude and commit ourselves to show mercy in turn.

The praxis of indulgences today presumes a number of sacramental and life-changing commitments. An indulgence, or the assurance of God’s mercy flows from the celebration of the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist; prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father and some kind of pilgrimage. During a Holy Year, the pilgrimage includes walking through the Holy Doors of Mercy as a celebration of God’s mercy and a commitment on our part to show mercy to one another for “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark: 4:25)



Photo of Divine Mercy Icon

Divine Mercy

A few years ago, one of our parishioners asked if he might donate an image of the Divine Mercy to The Basilica. Not entirely sure what he had in mind I was a bit hesitant. In the end, his persistence and my reluctance paid off and we now have a beautiful Icon of The Divine Mercy by Deb Korluka, our Basilica Iconographer.

This Icon usually hangs in the St. Joseph Chapel but during the Easter Season it hangs from the Pulpit in the Basilica.

The Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis caused me to ponder the mystery of mercy a little further. I was delighted to have the opportunity to be in Rome for the opening of the Holy Year on December 8, 2015. When, at the end of Mass he opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica all of us gathered in St. Peter’s Square burst out in applause. And what a joy to see so many people pass through our Holy Doors when we opened them.

 Recently I preached a mission on mercy in a California parish. I reluctantly accepted never having preached a mission. In the end, the experience turned out to be a gift from God. Not only did this commitment force me to think even more deeply about mercy I had to speak about it in a compelling way.

What I discovered is that our common use of the word mercy does not do the complexity and depth of God’s mercy justice. Hebrew, Greek and Latin do a better job of it. The Hebrew Bible uses two words for mercy: hesed and rachamim. Hesed is the kind of mercy that is strong, committed and steadfast. Rachamim which has the same root as rechem or womb conveys gentleness, love and compassion. The Greek word for mercy, eleos is related to elaion meaning oil thus suggesting that mercy is poured out like oil and has the healing qualities of oil.  The Latin word for mercy, misericordia means broken heart. It suggests that God is broken hearted about our failings and wants nothing more than to help.

Every day of the year, especially on Sundays we celebrate the richness of God’s mercy most especially as it was revealed to us in Jesus Christ. He embodies God’s enduring love and limitless mercy for us. It is this image of the merciful Jesus that is depicted in the Divine Mercy Icon.

 As we contemplate this Icon during the Year of Mercy let us give thanks for the mercy God has shown us. And in turn let us show mercy to one another. Mercy given and mercy received, that ought to be the motto of all Christians.

Holy Saturday is one of my favorite days. I like to arrive at The Basilica before the hustle and bustle of the Easter preparations begins. The cross we venerated the night before is still laid out on purple pillows, covered with rose petals strewn from the dome. The air is heavy with the smell of incense and the aroma of scented oil. And above all, everything is perfectly still. This silence is not a dead silence, rather it is a silence filled with the promise of new life.  It is a silence rich with anticipation and hope.

Bathing in the early morning light that pierces through the stained glass windows and dances on the receptive limestone walls I sit for but a few moments and let my mind wonder, inevitably guided by an icon and a homily which is sometimes ascribed to Pope Gregory the Great .

The icon depicts the risen Christ who broke the doors of hell with his victorious cross and opened the gates to paradise. Beneath his feet the dead are slowly coming to life. Most prominent among them are Adam and Eve, the first among the dead. Jesus, the new Adam holds on to the hand of the old Adam and prepares to lead him out of Hell. Adam in turn reaches for Eve’s hand and brings her along. And everyone else in Hell reaches for Adam and Eve. Thus all those who were asleep in death now are brought to new life.

According to the author of the ancient homily, Jesus said to Adam: “for you are in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.” The old Adam and the new Adam have once again united. That was the ultimate mission of Jesus: “God became human so that humans might become like God” as so many ancient bishops wrote. This uniting of heaven and earth, of God and humans is the essence of the Easter message. We are all one because God became one of us so we might become like God. And God unites us all no matter who we are or where we are and invites all of us to be more like God.

Those who are imprisoned by poverty, addiction and prejudice are invited to break free. Those who promote the darkness of racism, sexism, religious extremism are challenged to a change of heart and to come into the light. And ultimately those who are asleep in death are called to new life. This resurrection challenge the risen Christ places before all of us on Easter is not an easy task but it is what we are asked to do as Christians: we are called to break barriers, to set people free, and ultimately to celebrate and protect all life.

The silence on Holy Saturday is short lived as our many volunteers and   those who will receive the Easter Sacrament start to arrive.  If Holy Saturday is my favorite day, the talk I share with those who will join the church during the Easter Vigil is my favorite talk of the year. These women and men have been on a very intentional journey for months and sometimes much longer. They have prayed, studied, and shared many things with one another. And now they are ready. Their faith and commitment, their hope for the future and their love for God and one another embody what Christ asks of us today: to believe in Him and to imitate Him. Their excitement is exhilarating. Being with them reminds me of an ancient hymn used on Easter Sunday when those who were baptized the night before enter into the church:

These are the lambs, newly baptized,

Who proclaim the glad tidings: Alleluia

Recently come to the waters,

And full of God’s light and splendor. Alleluia, Alleluia.

May God’s light and splendor which shines so brightly in the new members of our community invigorate all of us so we can go forth from our Easter celebrations with a new resolve to be the much needed light for the world. Thus we will become like God as God has ordained for us for God is in us and we are in God.

Blessed Easter to all.