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

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.

Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion inaugurates Holy Week. This is the time Christians remember and celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. At the heart of this celebration and commemoration stands the cross. This cross is laden with pain, humiliation, death but it is also crowned with salvation, resurrection and joy.

Unless we just go through these days moved only by the skin-deep experience of sadness and joy without allowing it to touch us deeply, we cannot but ask the question as to the reason for the cross. Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

In a valiant attempt to make this mystery easily accessible, the answer has been made quite simple: “Jesus died for our sins.” If so, what does that mean? Did he die as a result of our sins? Did he die to atone for our sins? Did he die in order for us to rise above our sins? Did he die in order for us to move beyond our sins? And whose sins are we talking about? Do we mean the sins of our ancestors; our very own sins; or maybe even sins yet to be committed? A complete answer includes all of the above and much more. There is however another approach to this mystery. This approach suggests that the death of Jesus was the ultimate expression of God’s unconditional love for all of us as Jesus gave his life for the salvation of the world. We are the recipients of this unconditional love. In turn, we are called to love unconditionally. Once we have reached this level of love, then all sinfulness will be banned from the earth and the promise will be fulfilled.

Our Christian history has emphasized our human sinfulness and unworthiness. I remember a Good Friday homily in the early 1970ies during which the priest told us that we were nothing but “rats in the gutters of life, unworthy of God’s love”. We have a proven history of making sure that people are aware of their sinfulness and their unworthiness. There seems to be a resurgence of this with many believers pointing out sin in society and in people’s life. “Thank God I am not one of them.” We tend to feel good about ourselves as we define ourselves relative to the perceived graver sins of others. And as we enter into this game we often look at the part, rather than at the whole, a praxis which applies to much of our lives. We fail to see the moral forest in favor of one sinful tree. We love to position ourselves as protectors of the Gospel values up and against public sinners. If I recall, Jesus has a few choice words for us: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” And further: “I will not condemn you either. Go home and sin no more.”

 All of us have closets filled with skeletons…skeletons of hatred, jealousy, envy, pride, self-righteousness… Holy week is a good time to open our closets and deal with those skeletons, our own skeletons. Change will only happen when we concern ourselves with our own skeletons. This is not an easy exercise. It is much easier to find fault with others. Can you imagine how wonderful the world would be if all of us spent as much time cleaning our own spiritual house as we spend on finding fault with others? May Holy Week 2016 be a time of remembrance, celebration and spiritual renewal for all of us.

Recently, a reporter asked me whether Lent was considered passé by 21st C. Christians. Her question took me a bit by surprise. Not to be stumped I told her that Lent is more important than ever. Lent and Easter offer the perfect antidote to the barrage of negativity we face on a daily basis. So no, Lent is not passé, on the contrary.

Granted, the motivation for people’s participation in the Lenten disciplines may have changed. Visions of purgatory and Hell rarely move people anymore. I suspect it is a profound desire to be better people and the hope for a better world that motivates people to participate in the disciplines of Lent.  

After all, the essence of Lent is to right those relationships that have been wronged. Many, if not most of the world’s problems are due to wronged relationships. Different religions quarrel with one another and among themselves. Nations fight other nations. People exploit other people. All these evils are rooted in wronged relationships.

The Lenten praxis of righting relationships is rooted in the Bible. The Biblical Year of Jubilee which was called every 50 years was essentially about righting relationships. Captives were released. Slaves were set free. Those who had lost property were reinstated. Debts were forgiven. And beyond all these human relationships the relationship between humans and God was righted as well. During the Year of Jubilee God was recognized anew as the creator of the universe from whom all things come and to whom all things belong.

Every Lent is a mini Year of Jubilee and a call to right relationships. We do this through prayer, fasting and giving. And we do this not because we feel guilty or are afraid but rather because we want to do better and we want our world to be better.

During his general audience on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis called on us “to practice pardon, combat poverty and inequality and promote an equitable distribution of the earth’s goods to all.”  Our common goal is to “create a society based on equality and solidarity.” In essence, what pope Francis asks us to do; what the Church asks us to do; what the Bible asks us to do; what God asks us to do is to right relationships.

This is not an easy task. The season of Lent and the Year of Mercy offer us the opportunity to make some changes in our lives through prayer, fasting and giving that will right relationships and move us forward in the direction of this Biblical vision of solidarity, equality and peace. Equality can only be reached when we are committed to solidarity. And peace will never be attained unless we have equality.

Is Lent passé? I am sure that it is to some. I am also sure that to others it is nothing more than a cultural expression of a gone-by era. For true believers it is an exquisite opportunity to right relationships with God and with one another by advancing solidarity, equality and peace through prayer, fasting and sharing.

May this Lent be blessed for all of us.