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

The best laid plans sometimes don’t work out. And once in a while that turns out to be for the best. Last week I was in Rome for a meeting of the Vatican Council on Art and Technology. The council ended on December 5. Since Pope Francis was scheduled to open the Holy Year on Tuesday, December 8 I decided to stay on a couple more days, a sacrifice I happily made.

Through my work with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums I was able to secure some great tickets for front row seats and a special entrance permit so as to avoid all the waiting in line and the numerous security checks. At the appointed time we made our way to the assigned Vatican entrance. As we approached the Vatican it was obviously not business like usual. There were police cars and army vehicles everywhere. Field hospitals with numerous first aid workers were set-up around the Vatican perimeter. No-one could approach the Vatican without being checked numerous times. Police boats patrolled from the Tiber and army helicopters from the air. The irony that all these barriers were set-up as we were gathering to open a set of Holy Doors was not to be missed.

Getting to the assigned entrance was not an easy task. At every turn we encountered barricades and officers who were not to be persuaded to let us through. Only after much ambulating did we end up close to where we were to enter. Still, we could not get there for the thousands of people waiting to go through security. By now I was a little worried so I called my Vatican contact asking for advice. She apologized for the hassle and suggested we just wait in line and show our VIP tickets to security. “What tickets” I asked. “Oh no, had we not picked them up at the Porta Santa Anna the day before?” she replied. We had not.

At that very moment a “hospitality minister” asked us for our tickets. Since we had none we were told we would not be able to enter there. Moreover we were waiting in the line for the concelebrating bishops and priests and were to move immediately. Embarrassed we started to walk away as the gentle mist turned into veritable rain. Since the predictions were for a sunny morning we had no umbrellas to protect us from the rain and my increasing frustration.

“Strange who you run into in Rome” I heard someone say behind me. As I turned around I noticed it was Fr. Ubel, the rector of our Cathedral. He was in line with concelebrating priests. We spoke for a while before his line started to move and he disappeared in the crowd. I did not quite know what to do. Maybe it was time to give up and return to the hotel where we could watch the Mass on TV.

Knowing to tread carefully my travel companion offered to buy me a coffee. He gently nudged me not to give up and suggested that we enter with the many other people who had no tickets. Admittedly, I did not look forward to joining thousands of people waiting in line to squeeze through tiny security gates under the scrutinizing eye of Italian police. Nevertheless, we walked back to the Via della Conciliazione and joined the thousands of other pilgrims who either forgot to pick up their tickets or never got any.

It turned out to be ok. We recited  the Rosary and we sang the Salve Regina as we waited. By the time we got to Saint Peter’s Square the liturgical procession had begun. We stood for the entire service and my eyes went back and forth between the giant screens and the actual celebration which took place in miniature form far away.

The opening of the Holy Doors happened at the end of Mass. Apart from the cardinals and a few select bishops who entered St. Peter’s Basilica with the pope all of us watched the opening of the Holy Doors on the giant screens around the square, including the people who I was sure had taken up my prime seat. Not that I was holding any grudge.

When Pope Francis opened the Holy Doors after reciting the prescribed prayers,  a thunderous and sustained applause erupted through Saint Peter’s Square only to be followed by a profound silence as everyone saw Pope Francis pray in silence at the threshold of the Holy Door. He stood there for many moments steeped in prayer. Then he walked through the holy Door to more applause. Tears ran down my cheeks.

Having passed through the Holy Doors and walking with great vigor, his shepherd’s staff in hand Pope Francis then led a procession of cardinals and bishops to the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This altar is erected above the tomb of the first among the apostles and the first pope, Peter. Usually the pope walks at the end of a procession. This time he led the procession. At the tomb of St. Peter he prayed for the fruitfulness of the Holy Year for the Church and all of humanity. Though I wish laypeople, women, men and children would have been part of this procession, seeing him lead the cardinals and bishops was a striking image of the strength and conviction with which Pope Francis is leading the church, without any sense of fear.

I never made it through the Holy Door. There simply were too many people and rather than first I was now last in line. As I watched cardinals and bishops, presidents and diplomats walk through the Holy Doors I found myself praying for the many people who experience the harsh reality of closed doors. Sometimes these closed doors can be literal doors – doors to homes, doors to work opportunities, doors to hospitals, even doors to churches. These can also be symbolic doors: obstacles such as war, famine, inequality which prevent people from accessing needed opportunities. And these can be spiritual and emotional barriers. There simply are too many closed doors in our world. And as time goes by more and more doors are being closed.

Maybe the shared human experience of opened and closed doors was the reason for the thunderous applause as Francis pushed open the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. In that very gesture he not only reminded us that Christ is the Door to Mercy. He also strongly affirmed that the doors of the Church are to be kept open to everyone rather than to a select few. And he invited all of us to open the doors of our countries, our cities, our homes and our hearts especially to those most in need. This is not an easy task, but it is one that must be embraced for the sake of the church and the well-being of all people.

Why celebrate a Holy Year of Mercy? Because we need it! We need it very much, indeed!

Advent is one my favorite seasons of the liturgical year. Not only is this time of preparation for Christmas full of anticipation and the promise of new things. This is also the time to indulge in some great cultural traditions such as Messiah and the Nutcracker.

                I love Messiah for its beauty and its spirituality. I love Nutcracker for its warmth and playfulness. Both require great commitment on the part of all performers. And everyone has to work together: performers, stage hands, light engineers and donors. Even the people in the audience play an important role as their receptivity is vital to the success of any performance. Both Messiah and Nutcracker provide moments of joy; they cause the occasional tear; and in the end they leave us profoundly moved. Somehow, December without these great artistic traditions seems incomplete.

                From a faith perspective, the liturgical celebration of Advent in preparation for Christmas is of course much more important. And yet, there are some similarities. During the season of Advent and Christmas all of us work together to create the most moving and most uplifting celebrations we possibly can. Our priests, our musicians, our staff, our liturgical ministers and our assembly come together to celebrate in the best possible way the greatest mystery of all: the birth of God in our midst

                On occasion I take a reluctant guest to experience Messiah or the Nutcracker. More so than not the performance converts them to these artistic greats as they make them part of their own December experience. Similarly, during Advent and Christmas many new people join us for worship. For them it may be their only experience of the mystery of our faith as celebrated in the liturgy. Hopefully, some of them will be re-introduced to our community or even converted to our faith.

                And for those of us who gather weekly for worship, may this holy season be a time of deep spiritual renewal. May we find great joy and even experience the occasional tear as we celebrate the mystery God’s mercy which is embodied in the birth of Jesus. And above all, may we take to heart that in Jesus, God became like us so that we may become more like God. To that end, during this Year of Jubilee in celebration of God’s mercy let us show mercy to one another as God shows mercy to all of us. No need for wrapping paper as this is the best gift ever.

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.