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

Recently a young man approached me following one of our Sunday liturgies. He asked if we needed him for the liturgy. Eager to recruit I immediately said “yes, of course.” He thanked me and walked away. I was surprised he did not ask where he could sign up or how he could be most helpful. Maybe his question was more complex?

Reflecting on this interaction, I was reminded that shortly after the post-Vatican II liturgy had been implemented, Pope Paul VI said that up until then it had been sufficient for lay people to merely assist at Mass. “Before,” he said “being there was enough; now attention and activity are required. Before, everyone could doze or chatter, now all must listen and pray.” (see Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982) 27, 401, 115).

This most major shift from ‘assisting at Mass’ to ‘actively participating in the liturgy’ has revolutionized our Catholic understanding of the liturgy. No longer is it acceptable for the laity to watch the ordained ministers celebrate the rites of the church. Since this momentous shift, all Catholics are invited, encouraged, and even required to participate in many and various ways in the celebration of the liturgy. 

However, this does not mean that everyone participates in the same capacity. The Pauline image of the Body of Christ, which is one but has many parts, helps us understand how this participation might be best understood. Though the entire Body of Christ celebrates the liturgy, different members of the Body of Christ exercise different ministries in the liturgy. 

Thus, the first ministry is that of the entire Church. We, the Church, celebrate the liturgy as the one Body of Christ. Therefore it is important that the entire Body of Christ be present at the liturgy. And it is important that the entire Body of Christ participate actively, fully, and consciously. 

Second, some members of the Body are called to participate in a more particular way relative to our gifts and talent. Certain members of the Body of Christ, e.g. have been given the talents to lead the community in prayer and are ordained to do so. Other members of the Body of Christ who have been gifted with musical talents are called to lead the community in song. Those who have the talent of public speech are called to proclaim the Word of God, etc.

Talents are entrusted to us by God for the betterment of the world and the church. Liturgical talents are entrusted to us for the betterment of the liturgy and the proclamation of the Gospel. As members of the Body of Christ we are called to use those talents. 

Like the young man who stopped me after Mass, you may wonder if we need you for the celebration of the liturgy at The Basilica of Saint Mary. The answer is plain and simple: “Yes we do!” First of all we need you to participate actively in the liturgy through praying, singing, listening, etc. Second, we need you as a minister of hospitality (usher); as a lector; as an Extraordinary minister of Holy Communion; as a cantor; as a choir member; as a sacristan; as a server; etc. Whatever your talents are, they can surely be put to the service of the liturgy.

As you serve in one of those capacities you will discover a new and deeper appreciation for the celebration of the liturgy; you will learn how to better serve the Church and ultimately you will assist with the bringing about of the Reign of God. And if you think our community is too large, this is a great way to make it smaller. So, do not hesitate. Please go to and start the process. And remember: ‘don’t ask what the liturgy can do for you. Ask what you can do for the liturgy!’

On the feast of the Epiphany, one of the children in our Learning programs asked when we could go back to being “original.” Kelli Kester, who coordinates our children and youth programs asked if he meant “ordinary?” He said “yes, ordinary! Green!” I marvel at this great interaction. Is our “green” season “original” or “ordinary?” As Catholic allegorist Guillaume Durand a 13th C. bishop of Mendes in France suggested the green seasons are neither original nor ordinary, they are “in-between” seasons, nothing less and nothing more.

Up until the liturgical renewal promulgated by the Second Vatican Council there was no “ordinary” time on our liturgical calendar. The two “in-between” seasons we now call “ordinary” were known by different names. First, the Sundays between the end of Christmas and the beginning of Lent were generally known as the first, second, third, etc. “Sunday after Epiphany”. The Sundays between the end of the Easter Season and the beginning of Advent were generally known as the first, second, third, etc. “Sunday after Pentecost.”

The reform of the liturgy initiated by the Second Vatican Council sought to give the liturgical calendar a clearer structure in order to highlight the importance of the Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter seasons. To that end the time between Christmas and Lent roughly speaking January-February and the time between Easter and Advent, roughly speaking June-November were given a name independent of the preceding season. These two sections of the liturgical year were to be known in Latin as Tempus per Annum or “Time throughout the Year” instead of Sunday after Epiphany and Sundays after Pentecost.

Literally translated the Sundays in Ordinary Time should be known as e.g. “The Fifth Sunday throughout the Year.” Sensing this was a somewhat awkward translation it was decided to translate the Latin more freely as “The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.” This may or may not have been a happy decision as the word “ordinary” implies something that is common, not special, or even trite. Moreover, this word says absolutely nothing about the season it names. By comparison, the name of the other seasons either directly or indirectly speaks to the meaning of the season: Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter. A better name for this season might have Ordered Time or Tempus Ordinarium in Latin as during Ordinary Time we move from one counted Sunday to another in an ordered numerical fashion.

From a theological point of view one could describe Ordinary Time simply as a time ordered by Christian prayer for Christian living. Thus, despite its name there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time, either in its content or in its calculation. And as the young lad suggested, “ordinary” or “green” time is indeed rather “original.”


In a few weeks we will celebrate Ash Wednesday and thus begin Lent. That is the time when Lucinda Naylor’s contemporary Stations of the Cross will be hung beneath the traditional Stations, once again. I know that many of us love these mono prints and are anticipating their return. Others simply tolerate them. And some of us really wish I would forget about them or that I would “donate them to the Vatican Museums” as someone suggested. Since I will neither forget about them nor donate them I thought I might ponder the role of contemporary art in the church in preparation of Ash Wednesday.

For starters, let’s be clear that all artists were contemporary artists at one point and like today’s contemporary artists they were revered by some and reviled by others. Take e.g. celebrated French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Out of gratitude to his teacher Gabriel Fauré (1845– 1925) Ravel dedicated a newly composed string quartet to him. Fauré told him that this was very kind but that he could not accept since the piece was ugly, had no meaning and was completely unintelligible. Publicly humiliated Ravel doubted his talents and he almost stopped composing. Thankfully, fellow composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) who loved Ravel’s work encouraged him to continue writing music. Today, String Quartet in F is considered one of the great examples of French string music and Ravel’s work is known and loved throughout the world.

The vision of artists is often experienced as complex by their contemporaries because they are visionaries. Their art can be unusual and is sometimes not inviting. And their style may be abstract or at least stylized. All of this means that it is often more difficult to appreciate and understand contemporary art than traditional art. Traditional art is mostly pleasing and at least on one level more accessible because it is figurative. How often have you heard people say or maybe said yourself: “I don’t understand it.” And that is often why people don’t like the art.  Yet, our inability to understand and our consequent dislike of certain works of art do not make them bad art.

Figurative art has served our church well throughout history as it clearly tells our Christian story. However, figurative art runs the risk of imposing imagery. Take e.g. the Conversion of St. Paul. The most popular depiction of this important moment in Paul’s life shows him falling off his horse. And though Scripture does not make mention of a horse that is how most people visualize Paul’s Conversion. And even those of us who have never seen one of these paintings or sculptures very likely imagine a horse as part of this scene as the horse has become part of our shared memory.

This is of course an innocent example, but what about Mary and Jesus being depicted with blond hair and blue eyes. What does that image do to our religious imagination? How does this “color” Christianity? And how does it perpetuate evil stereotypes?

By contrast, abstract art does not impose images, rather abstract art invites imagination. That makes it less obvious and more difficult. Yet, because of this abstract art enjoys the potential of a deeper and more genuine understanding of the Gospel message.

So, when you see our abstract Stations of the Cross please take some time with them. Read the mediations we post next to them. And while reading these, let the colors, shapes and lines speak to your religious imagination. You might be surprised how much you like them if only you would give them a chance.

[Based on an entry in my book “What’s the Smoke For? and Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy.”]


It was January 6, 1972 - Epiphany. The day had been mostly quiet but as the sun started to set our excitement began to build. Finally, the doorbell rang. “It must be the three kings” one of my brothers exclaimed. We all went into the foyer and through the opaque glass windows of our front door we spotted the silhouettes of three kids. My father stepped forward and opened the door. Wearing some old, torn sheets for royal robes and with a paper crown on their heads there they stood: the first set of numerous “kings” expected to parade by the house all evening. As was the tradition, one of the kings carried a cardboard star which was affixed to a broom stick borrowed for the occasion.  They sang a carol. Then the kid with the star stuck out his hand. My father reached into his pockets and gave him some money. We wished one another a merry Christmas and off they went to our neighbor’s home. 

Throughout the Christmas season, but especially on Epiphany children in Belgium and in many European countries honor this centuries old custom of Star Singing. The star singers take their name from the star they carry, a reference to the star which led the Magi to the Christ Child. The origin is a 15th C. medieval mystery play that tells the story of the three Magi, albeit a bit enhanced. Essential to the play was the procession from home to home with the request that the star be allowed in. If permitted then the young actors entered the home and performed the play. After receiving refreshments and monetary gifts they moved on to the next home. These days the play is no longer performed but the procession of the kings is retained.

Beyond the nostalgia evoked by this memory, I find this simple custom to be profoundly symbolic. On the one hand, these kids testify to the birth of Jesus which happened some 2000 years ago. As such they are an example to all of us as we are called to proclaim to the world that in Jesus we have recognized Emanuel, God-with-us. On the other hand, this simple procession also symbolizes the search we all undertake to find God-with-us, Emanuel here and now. For as God was born in Jesus, so he is present among us today.

Yet, where can we find God-with-us in a world which seems to bring despair to so many people? Where is God in all of the misery we have created? The answer is simple, God is right here in the thick of it all. Emanuel can be found among the refugees who are fleeing their war torn countries. Emanuel can be found among those who live under the bridge and have nothing to eat. Emanuel can be found among the elderly who are dying a forgotten death. Emanuel can be found among the victims of wars waged in God’s name. Emanuel can be found among the children, women and men who are exploited and enslaved. God can be found in many places, but above all among those people who are most in need. That is where we can find Emanuel, God-with-us. That is where we are to honor God with our gifts of incense symbolizing respect, myrrh symbolizing dignity and gold symbolizing support.

One of the best cues to finding God-with-us has been given to us by Saint Athanasius (ca 298–373) who famously wrote: “God became human so that humans might become like God.” If only we were able and willing to recognize God in others we might find God-with-us. Sadly, like many of today’s kings or star singers, we go from door to door in an endless quest for God, blinded to the very presence of God all around us. So, let’s take up the star, put on some old sheets and a paper crown and let’s open our heart, mind and soul to God’s presence in one another, most especially in those we fear the most. Only then will we truly find God-with-us and will our world have a chance at peace.

Over the years, I have amassed a substantial collection of nativities. New to my collection are several images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on their way to Egypt. Some depict the Holy Family in the traditional way with Mary sitting on a donkey. She holds the baby Jesus in her arms. Joseph leads the donkey. Others are less traditional depicting them in a boat, in a car or on a plane. Regardless, in each of these cases they are on a journey. Theirs was a journey that led them from danger to safety; from darkness to light; from death to life.

The Holy Family’s journey exemplifies our own journey, for life indeed is a journey. For some people it is a long journey. For others, it is short. Some people’s journey is straightforward. Other people’s journey may be more circuitous. Some people’s journey is easy. Other people’s journey can be very difficult. But what all of us share is that we are on a journey from birth to burial.

For Christians this journey is more than just a journey. We consider it to be a pilgrimage. The English word pilgrim is a translation of the Latin peregrinus which means “stranger,” more precisely “from another country.” Being a Christian means being a pilgrim, being a “stranger” even when living in a Christian land. For myself, living and working in the United States, my adopted homeland I have often had the sense that I am a stranger. I sense that not only literally for I do come from another country. Being a Catholic I have sometimes felt a spiritual stranger in this country. I don’t consider this a bad thing, on the contrary. Lest we become complacent, Christians always should feel a little “out of place” and a little restless. For as St. Augustine said: “Our hearts will be restless until they rest in God.”

The Year of Mercy which we began December 8th is an invitation to all of us to rediscover this sense of restlessness; a sense that we don’t really belong; a sense that we are strangers; a sense that we are not at home, yet. The Year of Mercy offers us an opportunity to break out of our complacency and rediscover the riches and the challenges of the Gospel. The Year of Mercy invites us to renew our spiritual journey or pilgrimage.

Some of us will literally leave our homes this year to go on a pilgrimage to a sacred place. Some will take a pilgrimage to Rome during this Holy Year to walk through the Holy Doors. Most of us will stay near our home and make a pilgrimage to The Basilica or the Cathedral to walk through the Holy Doors here. No matter how far or near our pilgrimage takes us our shared goal is to rediscover what it means to be a pilgrim, a stranger, “from another land.”

I love looking at the sculptures I have of the Holy Family. Each one is different. One of them is from Mexico, another from Kenya, another from Palestine… in each one of them the Holy family is depicted in the image of the people who made them. It is a constant reminder to me that The Holy family’s treacherous journey is a pre-figuration of all our journeys. The journey and indeed, the entire life of the Holy family is a symbol of the life-long pilgrimage all of us are asked to undertake. May we be inspired by their faith, their trust and their endurance.

So, let’s pack our satchel and continue our pilgrimage from darkness to light; from death to life as we journey to that Promised Land where we will be strangers no more.