Johan van Parys

Director of Liturgy & Sacred Arts
Liturgy

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

Friends proudly posted a great picture of Pope Francis on Facebook. They took the picture on August 21 as they walked by Casa Santa Marta, his residence just inside Vatican City. It shows him standing in the doorway. He has a beautiful broad smile and his right hand is raised as if he is motioning my friends to join him for a chat. This unexpected encounter must have made their visit to Rome.

That same day, early morning visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica undoubtedly experienced a similar thrill as they made their way to the Presentation Chapel for Mass. Praying before the tomb of Pope Pius X was Pope Francis. Even Mgr. Lucio Bonora, the priest who was scheduled to celebrate Mass was taken aback. Noticing Pope Francis Mgr. Bonora immediately offered to step aside so the Pope might celebrate the Mass. The Monseigneur was told to continue as previously arranged. To everyone’s surprise, Pope Francis joined the assembly for the entirety of the Mass even lining up with them to receive Holy Communion.

For a pope to participate in the Mass with the assembly may raise an eyebrow or two. To be sure, there are good liturgical and ecclesiological reasons why one would expect the pope to be the celebrant of the Mass. Attending Mass “in the pews” is highly unusual. But then again, this is not the first unusual thing we have witnessed during this papacy. We have almost come to expect the unexpected. It all started when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica dressed in a simple white cassock on the day of his election. After some brief words he asked everyone to pray for him as he humbly bowed his head in a moment of silence.

Since then he has done many unexpected things. He has washed the feet of women on Holy Thursday. He uttered the now famous words: “Who am I to judge.” He speaks of the sacraments as medicine for the sinners rather than an award for the saints. He prefers unity over uniformity. He encourages a culture of encounter and describes the church as a field hospital. He is not afraid to speak off-the-cuff and follow his heart. And when unsure asked a specific question he readily admits that he needs to study the matter in greater detail.

When I meet with people, be they parishioners or not the subject almost always turns to Pope Francis and what a blessing he is for the Catholic Church and the world. They mention his simplicity and humility. They don’t see him as a distant figure, rather they see him as one of them. They see him as the guy who stands in his doorway and waves at passers-by; the guy who sits next to them at Mass; the guy who washes everyone’s feet, no matter who they are; the guy who is comfortable meeting presidents but prefers to hang out in the favelas; the guy who challenges all of us to be better and does not humiliate us when we fail; the guy who never tires of calling us back no matter how far we have strayed. And he does all this because he believes this is what he ought to do as the Vicar of Christ in our world today. Moreover, he asks all of us to do the same as we too are called to be Christ to the world.

I am not sure if Pope Francis indeed motioned my friends to come over to him. And if he did I am not sure if they accepted his invitation. Regardless, looking at the picture I see Pope Francis motioning to me and to all of us inviting us to join him and live out the Gospel message in our world in all humility, with deep faith and profound love. Isn’t it amazing what a simple picture can evoke?

In a letter dated August 5, 1905, Fr. Cullen wrote about the Pro-Cathedral, now known as The Basilica of Saint Mary: “May this temple which will soon be dedicated to his honor be an earthly center from which the Word of God will be in perpetuity preached, the sacraments holily received, and public and private worship faithfully and uninterruptedly offered. May the cross which tops its massive dome preach constantly to all our citizens the significance of Calvary’s tragedy and the love which through it was affirmed for men, and may the Holy Sacrifice be daily offered as long as our city lasts, for the living and the dead.”

As I write this column, exactly 100 years later I am inspired by his prophetic words. More importantly, I am edified by the thousands upon thousands of parishioners who made his vision come true. For indeed, since the very beginning the members of our community have dedicated themselves to preach the Word of God both in word and in deed. The sacraments have been celebrated with great care and devotion. And The Basilica has been a place of public and private prayer in times of personal trials and triumphs as well as in times of local, national, or international accomplishments and disasters. All of this happened under The Basilica’s massive dome topped by the cross, which proclaims God’s everlasting love and never-ending mercy.

Our rich archives are a true treasure trove of the stories of our forebears in the faith who laid the groundwork for our Basilica as we know it today. At first there were the Irish and Sicilian immigrant families. They not only paid for the building but built up the community. Their descendants still consider The Basilica their home though they may have moved away, even out of state. Successive families have taken up the torch and continued to build on the vision laid out by Fr. Cullen. Today, we come from far and wide; from north and south, east and west as we represent the colorful and rich tapestry of Catholicism at work in the world. And we, too, continue the vision of Fr. Cullen, our first Pro-Cathedral pastor.

During the dedication of the Pro-Cathedral on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, August 15, 1915, Archbishop Ireland who conceived of this church some 12 years earlier exclaimed: “Cities and nations honor their heroes with statues and paintings, with lasting memorials in brick and stone, and literature. Who would not bare his head when he stands at Mount Vernon, before the tomb of the honored father of this country? What true American does not feel his soul thrilled when the Star Spangled Banner, the emblem of this country, is raised to float on high? Who would deem it wrong or out of place to salute this banner? In the same spirit we are gathered today to dedicate this Pro-Cathedral to the honor of the saints of God.”

One hundred years after these daunting words were spoken we have much to celebrate because since that very day, The Basilica of Saint Mary has honored the saints of God by inspiring devotion, instilling faith, and evoking prayer. Therefore, we celebrate the building, the faith it represents, and the community it houses. I know of no better way to do that than by recommitting ourselves to the vision expressed so eloquently one hundred years ago. Let us preach our common faith with renewed vigor in our actions and in our words. let us celebrate the sacraments often and with great devotion. And Let us pray both individually and together for our own needs and for the needs of the entire world. Thus, we will indeed be a living testament to the very “cross which tops the massive dome” of our beloved Basilica as Fr. Cullen and Archbishop Ireland wished and prayed for 100 years ago.

 

No closed doors

 

A few years ago one of our priests delivered one of his strongest homilies ever using only a minimal number of words. After proclaiming the Gospel he walked down to the communion rail and demonstrably closed the bronze gates thus separating the sanctuary from the nave of the church. Standing in the sanctuary behind the closed gates he said. “This is who we used to be.” Then he opened the gates as wide as he possibly could and walked into the nave saying “This is who we are today.” Without another word he walked to the celebrant’s chair and sat down. In response, the congregation stood up and burst out in applause. Now, I am not a great lover of homiletic props but in this rare case it worked and I will never forget the message.

The profound desire for an inclusive church expressed in this homily and echoed by our community was once again affirmed this week by Pope Francis. During this Wednesday’s general audience at the Vatican he referenced his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” saying:  “No closed doors! No closed doors! Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community.” And alluding to the Gospel of St. John, chapter 14 he continued: “The Church is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone.”

In her short story "Revelation" Flannery O’Conner went even a step further turning our pre-conceptions about church membership and salvation upside down. Mrs. Turpin, the main character has a frightful and disturbing vision of heaven. In it she sees the redeemed souls wind their way to heaven. To her dismay the souls who arrive first are those whom she has always considered unworthy. She is shocked to see herself and her “proper” Christian friends at the very rear of this colorful parade of souls. Though she does make it to heaven she clearly is not happy that those she always considered unworthy made it there too. Worse, they made it ahead of her.

Maybe salvation is not as clear cut as some of us desire it to be and participation in the church is not as exclusive as some of us believe it to be, for indeed we are a colorful bunch.

We are a poor, we are rich and everything in between;

We are over-educated, we are under-educated and everything in between;

We are conservative, we are liberal and everything in between;

We are young, we are old and everything in between;

We are differently able;

We are male, we are female, we are gay, we are straight;

We are single, we are couples, we are families;

We are native-born, we are immigrants;

We have black skin, we have white skin and everything in between;

We are strong in our faith, we are weak in our faith and everything in between.

We are an extremely diverse tapestry of humanity in search of salvation. We are the church on a shared pilgrimage in unity, not uniformity. We welcome one another. We dialogue with one another. We help one another forward on this Christian journey of ours. The doors are open. All are welcome and who knows who will be first in heaven. Like Mrs. Turpin, we might end up being surprised, very surprised indeed.

 

One of my friends is truly a classy act. She stays on top of all the latest fashions and is very generous in sharing her knowledge and advice with others. Once in a while she even contributes to the stylistic improvements of her friends. To that end she recently gifted me with a new pair of reading glasses. They are nothing fancy yet they are elegant in an almost over-the-top European way.

When I did not immediately wear them my friend inquired about my hesitation. Did I not like them? Were they too much? Had I become a conservative dresser? I told her that I would wait till the following Sunday to wear them. Somewhat bemused she asked me why. Not knowing if she would understand I told her that it was simply something I did, despite the fact I had my clear reasons for doing this.

Growing up it was instilled in us that whenever we received a new article of clothing or an accessory they had to be worn on a Sunday first. The same held for new tables cloths, crockery, cutlery, etc. No reason was ever given. We just knew that new items were first worn or used on Sundays. And “Sunday best” was our shopping norm. When we saw something we liked we would not buy it unless it passed the “Sunday best” test. I remember my grandfather’s disapproving reaction vividly when I appeared at Sunday dinner in my first pair of store bought corduroys.

I truly loved Sundays. The anticipation actually began on Friday when the whole house was readied for Sunday. On Saturday my mom had her weekly appointment at the beauty parlor. In the afternoon we went to the market where we bought all the ingredients for the next day’s meals.

I loved Sundays. Dressing up has never been a hassle for me, on the contrary. Also, we did not do any work on Sunday, not even homework. Stores were closed except for the bakery as one just had to have freshly baked bread on Sunday. There was hardly any traffic. The streets were quiet. There was a deep sense of peace.

I loved Sundays. Even as a young boy I enjoyed Sunday Mass. That was a good thing since there was absolutely no excuse for missing Sunday Mass safe maybe for an emergency trip to the hospital. I can almost hear our church bells calling us to worship. We left our home as soon as the bells started to ring. As we walked there we were joined by our neighbors who also made their way to church. From a young age I got involved in the ministries, first as a server then as a lector..

I loved Sundays. After Mass we went home for a family breakfast followed by a visit to my one grandmother. Then it was on to lunch at my other grandmother’s home where we dined with the aunts, uncles and cousins. The afternoon was spent playing in the garden or inside, always careful not to soil our “Sunday best.”

Things are very different today, even in my small hometown. Stores are open, the streets are filled with cars, one can barely hear the tower bells and hardly anyone goes to Mass anymore. Our Catholic customs are competing with many, many distractions. But maybe the greatest impediment of all is our inability to simply stop and rest for a moment, either physically or spiritually. We are the victims of our obsession with doing things and getting things done.

Though I love Sundays, I neither want to glorify my pious past nor give in to a boost of nostalgia, yet I do think we can take something away from this cherished memory of celebrating Sunday in ages past. I will leave it up to you to decide what that might be. By now you may have noted that I truly love Sundays and I hope you do too.

Now I wish I had told my friend the reason why I wanted to premier my new glasses on Sunday. Maybe I will send her this blog or better yet, sit her down for a conversation proudly sporting my new glasses.

Three weeks ago I was in Belgium for a Mass celebrated on the one year anniversary of my beloved auntie’s passing. As I was not able to attend her funeral I was grateful to be with my family for this Mass. My auntie was quite extra-ordinary. As is somewhat the norm in my family she was an incredibly strong willed woman. And though it might sound cliché, she really did things her own way.

By the grace of God I spent some time with her mere weeks before her unexpected death. No-one would have ever guessed her to be 80 when seeing the two of us dancing the night away at my niece’s wedding. She rode her bike every day. She attended choir rehearsal every week. She loved to travel. And most importantly she loved her faith and was quite outspoken about it, ruffling feathers on more than one occasion. That is how I remember her: a beautiful, intelligent, sweet troublemaker.

Everyone called her Maddy. Her full name, however was Mary Magdalene. When I first learned her full name I was surprised that any mother would name her daughter after a notorious prostitute, albeit a repentant one. Being a nosy teenager I bluntly asked her about her name. She simply suggested I research the life of Mary of Magdala beyond what I was taught to believe.

I quickly discovered two schools of thought about Mary of Magdala. The churches in the East have always honored her as a great follower of Jesus and refer to her as the Apostle to the Apostles. The churches in the West have traditionally portrayed her as a repentant sinner. And to my youthful surprise both schools claimed biblical proof for their position.

The churches in the East base their belief on several important scriptural passages. Mary of Magdala stayed by Jesus even as he was dying on the cross (Matthew 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; John 19:25). She was also present when he was laid in the tomb (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47). Even more importantly, she was the first (John 20:1–10) or at least among the first (Matthew 28:1–8; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12) to arrive at the empty tomb. And, she was the first (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:14–18) or at least among the first (Matthew 28:9) to meet the risen Christ. Finally, it was Mary of Magdala who announced the resurrection to the apostles (John 20: 18).

The churches in the West have based their traditional understanding on four other Gospel passages. The unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet was said to be Mary of Magdala (Luke 7:36–50). She was also thought to be the unnamed adulteress who was saved by Jesus from stoning (John 8:3–11). The other two passages do name her and mention that she was healed by Jesus of seven demons (Luke 8:1–3 and Mark 16:9). These demons were believed to be the seven deadly sins, with lust being one of them. Though none of these theological conjectures are supported by current biblical scholarship, they sealed the fate of Mary of Magdala as a repentant sinner for centuries. Today, the churches in the West have joined those in the East in celebrating Mary of Magdala as a woman of strong faith, first witness to the resurrection and Apostle to the Apostles.

This week we celebrate the feast of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles and with her we celebrate all the women who make up our church. Most especially those who ruffle the occasional feather as they carry on in the tradition of Mary of Magdala as the Apostle to the Apostles.

After my research I sat down with my aunt to share my findings. She smiled and simply said “good.” I knew exactly what she meant.

 

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