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

My father was a great story teller. Over dinner he acquainted us with distant ancestors we only knew from old photographs and bad paintings. Before bed he made biblical stories truly come alive. And on Saints’ days he regaled us with their famed deeds. These stories have greatly shaped my love and respect for my family, my faith and our saints. They are engraved in my memory.

It is through stories that we hand down from one generation to the next who we are and what we believe. These shared stories shape our memories. And memories are essential to our human existence. Without memory we would have no language because we would be unable to recognize words. Without memory we would have no experience of family because without their stories we would not know our ancestors and contemporaries alike. Without memory we would have no faith because without knowledge of the Bible and the lives of the saints there would be nothing to believe and no-one to worship. Without memory we are simply nothing. Thus the telling of stories and the remembrance of our ancestors both in life and in faith are essential.

Though popular for millennia, our tweeting generation seems to have lost the art of telling stories because story telling takes too many words and too much time. In addition, most saints seem less “cool” today than they were 50 years ago when people collected cards of saints rather than cards of baseball players. And who, today wants to know what caused a great-aunt to enter the convent or an uncle to join the army? All of that lies in the past and is not helpful for a now-obsessed generation. This worrisome ttrend puts our collective memory at risk and thus poses a challenge to our human experience.

Thankfully, many of us still want to know where we have come from and who has gone before us. The faded photo of a long since gone ancestor in full habit standing in the desert begs the question as to who she was and what she did. The statues of numerous saints stand quietly in their shrines waiting for us to notice them, to recognize them and to remember them.

The month of November is the preferred time in our church calendar to remember all those who have gone before us, both saints and sinners. We have the Icons of the saints in our sanctuary begging the question as to their story. We have the photos of our beloved dead on our side altars inviting us to remember and share all the things they did, both good and bad. And we inscribe their names in our Book of Remembrance commending them to the mercy of God.

I often think back on the treasured moments spent listening to my father’s stories. It is in his deep resonant voice that I remember David in the Lion’s Den and St. Francis’ encounter with the wolf. It is in his voice that I recall the time my grandfather spent in a German concentration camp and my grandmother’s “visit” with Pope John XXII. Now it is my turn to tell our stories. It is your turn to tell your stories.

So, on Thanksgiving, rather than filling your home with ceramic pumpkins and papier-mâché turkeys – not that there is anything wrong with that – pull out pictures of your family, dust off the statues of the saints and tell their story for their story is yours.




Many years ago I went on an art historical tour through Italy. The focus was on mosaics. Naturally, Ravenna was on the list of cities to visit. I had studied Ravenna’s many early Christian churches but had never seen them in person. I was completely enamored with their beauty. And though I remember all of them with great fondness, one church left a lasting impression: the church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

Not only is this church constructed in the elegant early Christian basilica style, the 5th and 6th century mosaics are just splendid. The walls of the nave are divided in three freezes. The mosaics on the top tell the story of the life of Jesus, who is God. The other two freezes depict a grand procession saints, humans who have become like God.

Sitting quietly in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo I not only succumbed to a true artistic ecstasy but more importantly I had a deep spiritual revelation. As a liturgical theologian I knew and truly believed that whenever we gather for worship we not only gather with our local community but we gather with the entire church, even those who have gone before us and those who are yet to come. Flanked by all the saints depicted so beautifully I had a more profound experience of our communion with the saints than I have ever had before.

Years later and thousands of miles away I had a similar experience in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Angels in Los Angeles. The nave of this magnificent 20th C. building is decorated with beautiful tapestries designed by John Nava. Like the mosaics in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo these tapestries depict row upon row of saints. Some saints have their names written beneath them. Others don’t, leaving room for those saints living among us and those yet to be born. As I processed toward the altar to receive Holy Communion I had a true sense of Teresa of Calcutta and John Bosco, Bridget of Sweden and Ignatius of Loyola and countless other saints walking with me not only toward this earthly banquet but even to the eternal banquet.

The solemnity of All Saints is the day per excellence that we celebrate our communion with the saints. At The Basilica of Saint Mary we have neither mosaics nor tapestries to assist us in this celebration. However, we do have Icons. Therefore, on November 1st we process the images of the Blessed Mother and countless other saints into the church and we place them in the sanctuary. We do this not only to honor these saints but also to celebrate their presence among us, especially when we gather for Eucharist. We also bring in photos of our loves ones and place them on the side altars. We do this to either celebrate that they belong to the Communion of Saints or to pray that one day they too may be admitted to the Communion of Saints.

The mosaics of the church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, the tapestries of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Angels, the Icons of The Basilica of Saint Mary remind us of one profound reality: we are all on a journey toward sainthood. Some of us get their quickly. Others need more time, sometimes even past our death. And so we march on together, saint and sinner, side by side as we proclaim our faith in God who became human so we may become like God.

Recently I gave a talk at Holy Name Catholic Church in Steamboat Springs on “Beauty that Saves.” I was happy to do so as it is one of my favorite topics. Moreover, the pastor is a university classmate whom I had not seen in years. And I had yet to experience their new parish church.

Minutes before the presentation I was pulled aside by someone who appeared agitated. As a matter of fact he was quite angry. Without any introduction he asked if “they really have to spend so much money on their new church?” Without waiting for an answer he continued “and why did every window have to be stained glass while the poor go without food and shelter.”

My involvement with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums occasioned a further rant about the church being so rich and the need for the church to “sell all the art and give the money to the poor.” I thanked him for his observations and excused myself as the talk was to begin. He stormed out and somewhat shaken I started my lecture.

The man obviously was very concerned and frustrated with the plight of the many people who live in difficult circumstances. Like many others he directed some of this anger at the church, its perceived riches and lack of care. This was not the first time I faced someone making these kinds of accusations. They always sadden me because though they may come from a place of honest concern they are also somewhat misinformed.

The church is very committed to alleviating the pain of those in need. This is an essential part of our mission. Rather than being an impediment to this art and beauty are considered an important component of the Church’s ministry to those who are in need because “Beauty Saves.”

During the Bosnian war in the early 1990s the so-called Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor in shelled buildings and in abandoned city squares. He also played for funerals, knowing that these were often the target of snipers. He did this because he believed that beauty was so needed in the midst of all this malice. He also did it because be believed that beauty could and should stand up against the ugliness of hatred and the madness of war. And he truly believed that “Beauty Saves.”

Beauty provides much needed cosmos in a world that is often dangerously teetering on the brink of complete chaos and despair. As we try to alleviate people’s immediate needs and work toward structural changes that cause these needs we do that in an environment of peace and beauty. We offer beauty as an antidote to the ugliness experienced by so many people. Beauty truly has the ability to create more beauty. Beauty is contagious.

Much of our outreach at The Basilica of Saint Mary happens in the Teresa of Calcutta Hall. Several of the paintings from our collection hang in this hall. They are there because we believe that their beauty will create more beauty. One painting is particularly striking and a propos: The Hospitality of Saint Julian by Cristofano  Allori. This 17th C. Italian painting depicts St. Julian as he assists a young person in need. The story behind this painting is complex and long. The essence however is that Julian had decided that he was done helping people and from now on would only care for himself and his wife. One day a young person asked him for help. As Julian angrily refused to help the young man he suddenly realized that the young man was actually Jesus. He immediately rushed to his aid and recommitted himself to help those in need.

This painting epitomizes the essential connection between beauty and service. On the one hand it beautifies the room where we help those who are in need thus creating a beautiful and peaceful atmosphere. On the other hand it reminds us of our obligation as Christians to do as Christ did and to do it because in each person we meet, above all those in need we meet Christ himself.

After my presentation in Steamboat Springs I ran into the man I mentioned above. He was less agitated. He mentioned that he had snuck back in after storming off earlier in the evening. After apologizing he asked if I might give him a copy of my presentation. Beauty does save.


You may have noticed the sign announcing the Blessing of the Animals outside The Basilica. It occasioned someone to write me a rather unpleasant note. In it I was accused of engaging in sacrilegious behavior. Thankfully I have developed a thick skin over these past many years so it did not make me angry, rather it made me sad. How could anyone think that celebrating God’s beautiful creation is sacrilegious?

I was 19 when I first experienced a Blessing of Animals. I had finished my first year in seminary and was able to spend the month of October in Italy with some of the other seminarians. It was the first of many, many trips to this beautiful and mystical country.

On October 4, the feast of St. Francis I was in Assisi at the Franciscan monastery of San Damiano. Surprisingly the small monastery was not overrun by tourists. We gathered in the courtyard with some of the young friars and a number of neighboring farmers for the celebration of the Eucharist. To my surprise and delight we were also joined by several animals. The early October weather was glorious. Being a romantic, I imagined myself in Zefferelli’s movie Brother Sun, and Sister Moon. At the end of Mass the priest asked all of us to extend our hands in prayer over the animals and he led us in a beautiful blessing. I will never forget the experience. It almost caused me to join the Franciscans.

When I started working at The Basilica I learned that our community had been Blessing animals for many years. And though I delighted in this I was a bit uneasy with bringing the animals into the church for the service. But since this had been the custom at The Basilica I went with the flow and found it to be beautiful.

Catholics have such a rich tradition of blessing people, animals and all sorts of things. I thought of sending the table of contents of our Book of Blessings to the author of the above mentioned e-mail. He might be surprised to learn that we not only bless animals, we also bless athletic fields; all sorts of machinery; fishing gear; motor bikes; shopping malls and communications centers to name just a few. Catholics like to bless things. As a matter of fact, Catholics REALLY like to bless things.

But what does it mean when we bless someone or something? I will spare you the etymology of the English word as it is a bit too bloody. Let’s just look at benedicere which is the Latin for the English verb “to bless.” Benedicere is a contraction of two words bene and dicere meaning “to speak well” or “to speak words of good wishes.”

Thus, when we bless someone or something we engage into a two-fold action: first, we bless and thank God for the many gifts bestowed on us; second, we ask God to hallow that, which is being blessed.  Therefore, when we bless animals-recognizing their sacred place in creation-we thank God for the gift of animals and we ask God to protect them. This is a most sacred, and assuredly not a sacrilegious act, don’t you think?


As people were entering The Basilica this morning everyone was eager to speak about Pope Francis. Most had been glued to the TV all week. And all of them mentioned how moved they have been by the words and actions of Pope Francis. It has been quite the week, indeed. Pope Francis’ six day visit to three major US cities has made a lasting impression on all those he encountered either face to face or through the media. Speech after speech he brought the Good News to those willing to listen and most everyone did.  

Last Thursday we hosted a viewing of the address Pope Francis gave to the Joint Session of Congress. We were a somewhat eclectic group. Some people I knew, yet most I didn’t. As the time of the arrival of Pope Francis drew nearer the conversation in the room became more animated. Then at the announcement that the “Pope of the Holy See” was entering the chamber we instantaneously became quiet. It was a momentous day, indeed. Who would have ever thought that the leader of the Catholic Church would be asked to address our political leaders?

His beautiful opening paragraph drew enthusiastic applause from the members of congress and our guests alike. “I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.”

Noting that he had come to engage in a dialogue with everyone, his tone was gentle but firm as he reminded our leaders and all of us of our shared responsibility to work for the common good of the entire human family. As was expected, he touched on all the causes he has been advocating but was able to do so without politicizing them, rather speaking about them in the light of the Gospel. And he skillfully tailored his remarks to his audience referencing a beloved president, a revered Baptist minister and two Catholics who were once considered radical, each in their own right.

First, Pope Francis spoke of President Abraham Lincoln as “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”.” Then, he recalled Martin Luther King’s epic march from Selma to Montgomery as emblematic of his campaign “to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans.” Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement was lauded by Pope Francis for “her social activism, her passion for justice” and for her tireless work on behalf of all those who are oppressed.” Of Thomas Merton Pope Francis said that above all he was “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.” He went on to say that Merton “was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”

Citing the strengths, passions and dreams of these four great US citizens Pope Francis spoke about the difficulties our world faces today and he invited us to respond to the needs of our time with the same conviction as our forbearers responded to the needs of their time. So, following Lincoln’s example Pope Francis asked us to be the guardians of freedom for all, a task “which requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.” Like King he asked us to strive for “full civil and political rights” for all. Like Day he asked us to be “passionate about justice” and “defend all those who are oppressed.” Like Merton he asked us to “challenge the certitudes of our times,” to be “open to new horizons,” to be “lovers of dialogue” and to be “promoters of peace between peoples and religions.”

Translating this in some concrete action points he spoke about the urgent need to care for our common home, the earth and he expressed his conviction that our country will play an important role in this. He asked us to be welcoming to immigrants “seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best as we can to their situation.” He called on us to revere all life and to never take anyone’s life because everyone is “endowed with an inalienable dignity” even those on death row. Quoting from his encyclical Laudato Si he praised business as a noble vocation because it produces wealth and improves the world “especially when it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” He also stressed the importance of the family. Pointing to the difficulties many families face today especially those trapped “in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair” he said that these are not just “their problems” rather they are “our problems.”

In essence, Pope Francis called us all to restore the relationship we have with one another, with other cultures, creeds and countries and indeed with all of creation. Only when we live in right relationship with all the above will we be able to come back from the brink of complete alienation on which we have been teetering for too long. So, let’s heed Pope Francis’ call and engage in open, respectful and honest dialogue with one another. Let us strive for radical solidarity and profound respect as we extend our hand in love and mercy to one another. And let us build a culture of compassion and care remembering that though we may be different in what we think and in what we believe we are all children of the same God “endowed with an inalienable dignity.”