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

On a Pilgrimage

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 8, 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.

On September 13, 2015 we ended Mass by processing to the most western doors of the Basilica’s façade. Covering that door was an image of the Divine Mercy. We paused and prayed for God’s mercy on all of us and declared the doors closed until December 13, 2015 when we opened these Holy Doors in celebration of the Holy Year of Mercy.

The opening of the Holy Doors was a beautiful celebration. After reading from the Proclamation of the Holy Year of Jubilee by Pope Francis we processed to the Holy Doors while singing the Veni Creator Spiritus. Fr. Bauer pronounced the prescribed Psalm verses and opened the Holy Doors. Immediately the Te Deum was sung and nearly everyone in attendance entered The Basilica through our Holy Doors.

At least since the mid-15th C. the major Basilicas in Rome (St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Paul-outside-the-Walls and St. Mary Major) have had a designated Holy Door. In order to avail the spiritual benefits of a Holy Door to the entire church Pope Francis has extended this privilege to all Cathedral churches. Thus, for the first time in the history of The Basilica of Saint Mary we have been granted the privilege of a Holy Door.

Doors mark thresholds and provide entryways. Some doors lead to great beauty. I marvel at the faces of our guest who walk through the Basilica doors for the first time. Some doors lead to freedom. Just think of refugees who walk to freedom through the doors that lead into our country. Some doors lead to sanctuary. Illegal immigrants, e.g. walk through church doors in the hope of finding sanctuary.

Doors can also present barriers and blockades. The gates to our church sanctuaries were intended to keep the non-ordained out. The gates we have at our boarders are intended to keep unwanted people out of the country. And gated communities take their name from the gates that allow certain people in and keep others out.

It is this human experience of doors that inspired our Judeo-Christian experience of the gates to Paradise and the gates to Hell. Our hope and prayer is to enter the former which lead to eternal bliss and avoid the latter as those lead to eternal damnation.

The custom of Holy Doors grew out of our human and spiritual experience of doors. When closed, they symbolize our sinful human condition epitomized by the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. When opened, they symbolize how Jesus opened the gates to Paradise for us by virtue for his life, death and resurrection. In His own words: "I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture." (John 10:9)

There is nothing magic about passing through these doors rather it is a profoundly symbolic act which embodies our faith and our commitment to Christ. When we walk through these doors we acknowledge that Christ is indeed the door to paradise. At the same time we commit ourselves to living according to the Gospel and to open doors to others as Christ has opened the Doors to Paradise for us.

In a sense, the Jubilee Year of Mercy is all about opening doors. The Holy Doors in all the catehdrals thoughout the world are most important, however they are also symbolic of many other doors which need to be opened.  As Pope Francis opened the Holy Doors of Mercy he asked that in response all of us open the doors to our hearts, the doors to our homes, the doors to our country, the doors to our churches. Only when we are willing to do so will his great wish for the Year of Jubilee be realized: a Revolution of Tenderness.

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.