Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: Johan van Parys

Pray Tell is starting a new series of interviews with liturgical leaders. It is loosely inspired by a series in Time Magazine. Each interviewee was asked to be witty, engaging and humorous in their responses. The views expressed in their responses are not necessarily those of Pray Tell.

Here is what we received…


1) Why are you in liturgy? What part of your job do you like the best?

My love for the liturgy began in earnest during my studies at the Catholic University of Louvain. I lived with the Benedictine monks of Mont César. The monks of said abbey contributed greatly to the spiritual and liturgical life of the church with such greats as Abbot Columba Marmion, Dom Lambert Beauduin and Dom Bernard Botte. I shared in the prayer life of the monks and benefited from their research. Abbot Ambroos Verheul, a sacramental theologian who wrote prolifically about the liturgy became my guide as my studies in art history and theology culminated in liturgical studies.

Though I was all set for an academic career, Divine Providence led me to my current position at The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. Sharing in the beautiful liturgical life of this vibrant and diverse community gives me great joy and is truly the best part of my job. I am grateful for the occasional opportunity to teach at St. John’s University which allows me to stay connected with the world of academia.


2) Three things to be fixed in the liturgy – what would they be?

One time I was in the midst of a lecture on the Eucharist when an obviously irritated listener yelled out: “a Mass is a Mass is a Mass” and stomped out. I had just ended the part about quality as one of the characteristics of liturgy and was about to speak about patience and generosity. The irony of the situation was not lost on me, yet it took me a bit to compose myself. Since then I have become thankful for his intervention as I will never forget what I was talking about.

First, quality is an important characteristic of the liturgy. To that end we need to seek and affirm people with musical, artistic and liturgical talent. Too often we content ourselves with a certain level of mediocrity which we justify by pointing to a lack of talent or resources. Mediocrity has no place either in our liturgy or in our life as Christians.

Second, we need to exercise liturgical patience as we work toward improving our liturgies. We need to be patient with the Church, with our ordained ministers and with one another. This level of patience sometimes is challenged as we strive to find the proper balance between the different liturgical roles (ordained and lay). In some parishes the ordained ministries are under-emphasized in favor of the lay ministries. In other parishes the exact opposite happens. We just need to remember that we have a common goal and maybe we should leave our egos behind in the narthex.

Third: our liturgical celebrations need to leave us with a level of generosity, not only toward our fellow worshipers, but also to everyone we encounter in our day-to-day lives. We too often content ourselves with beautiful liturgies without making the obvious connection to the world we live in. Unless the liturgy changes us and causes us to want to make a difference in the world it is little more than a self-indulgent artistic endeavor and spiritual navel gazing.


3) Is the Vatican II liturgical program secure or endangered?

The liturgical program of Vatican II is neither secure nor endangered. As a church we have struggled to understand, unpack and realize it during the 50 years since the council. It seems to me that we will continue to struggle as we move toward the 100th anniversary of the council.

The church and the liturgy always have and will continue to evolve albeit not always in a direct and predictably way. At times we may move forward, at other times backward. We tend to harken back to the past when we experience a discomfort with the present and a fear of the future. Returning to the past is never a good strategy to solve a problem in the present. One may learn from the past but one ought not return to it. We must move forward.

Other times we return to the past when we lack spiritual depth and liturgical inspiration in the present. That is when we embrace architectural and liturgical neo-styles rather than develop styled inspired by our history and reborn in our own time and place. Baroque vestments really belong in baroque times when they were very functional and deeply inspirational.

In the end, we really have no choice but to move forward in dialogue with our world and our time. The alternative cannot but result in a sure liturgical decay and even spiritual death.


4) Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?

One of the great temptations we have struggled with from the very beginning of our liturgical history is to cover the essential elements of the liturgy under layers of rituals and symbols which sometimes obscure the essence of the liturgy and even tend to become more important that the liturgy itself.

Pope Francis’ overall simplicity and call for a return to the essence of all things Christian freed from all pompous and ritualistic trappings is clearly impacting the way in which the liturgy is celebrated in Rome. This can be observed in the dramatic simplification of vesture worn by the pope and everyone around him; in his homiletic style which is accessible, direct and sometimes off the cuff yet very profound; as well as in the overall simplification of the ritual to name but a few.

In addition, he is also not afraid to ignore some of the rubrics when he sees fit. Some people have pointed out that this kind of behavior is dangerous for the liturgy. On the contrary, it is healthy as it assures that the liturgy continues to evolve with the needs of the people and the times rather than imprison those who celebrate. And should one pope go too far in one direction or another, we can be assured that time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will make the necessary corrections.


5) Is academic liturgical study relevant to the real world? And would you advise a young person to go into it?

Academic liturgical study is indeed very important, and young people should enter the field. That is what I did some 25 years ago and my goal was to spend my life in academia. However, divine providence brought me to a more pastoral role in the church. I accepted the call at first, somewhat reluctantly but now all embracing. Since then I have discovered that, of course academic investigation of the liturgy is important, even for its own sake. Nevertheless, academic liturgical study truly bears fruit when it informs and enhances the liturgical life of the church today.


6) Organized religion isn’t exactly flourishing just now – are you hopeful about the future?

Being from Belgium and making regular visits there I have seen a great decline in people’s participation in the church. Ordinations are nearly non-existing, convents are closing and churches have been decommissioned. The Catholic Church which was once an all influential institution is losing its hold on society. This could easily lead one to despair, but rather it is a great opportunity as long as we are willing to shift our approach from established church to missionary church. What a great opportunity.

By contrast to my Belgian experience, worshiping at The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis gives me great hope as we experience continued growth on all levels. Much more learned people have written volumes about the reasons for the decline of religious participation in general and the success of some churches in particular. I would rather use the words spoken by one of our new members during a welcome dinner. When he was asked why he became a member he responded: “I came because of the beauty of the building; I returned because of the liturgies; I stayed because of the outreach.”


8) How come so many young people don’t go to church? What should we be doing differently?

I do realize this is the case in many churches, however we are blessed to experience the opposite. We have tried to figure out why this is, but of course that is very difficult to do. Just a few thoughts

  1. We do everything as well as we possibly can. This holds for our publications, our liturgies, the way we care for the buildings and grounds, our learning opportunities, our outreach initiatives, our music, our art exhibits, our concerts, etc.
  2. We are absolutely committed to hospitality. No matter where people are at on their life’s journey we try our utmost best to make them feel welcome.
  3. We embrace the rich diversity in our community. Our motto is that everyone who enters our church should be able to recognize themselves either in a work of art, a saint, a piece of music or hopefully another member of the community.
  4. We are intent on breaking barriers. There is so much that divides the human race. Churches should be in the business of bringing people together rather creating divisions.
  5. We believe that our liturgies, our learning opportunities and our Christian life are the work of the entire people of God and not solely of the priest and staff.
  6. We believe that the best way to reach people is to start with beauty and goodness. From there one can move on to faith which then will lead to the truth.
  7. Respectful of our rich tradition we move on with the times believing that true tradition keeps evolving as it builds on the past and moved toward the future. Thus our motto is “A traditional church with a modern message.”


9) Favorite place in the world you’d like to worship?

Many different places for many different reasons. Just a couple of my favorite liturgical memories:

  • I love my quiet prayer at the small Lourdes grotto in the country side near my home town in Belgium. It all started with my grandmother sending me there to light candles for her intentions. Every time I return home I make a pilgrimage to this grotto.
  • Last October we celebrated Gregorian Vespers in the Sistine Chapel. This was only the second time I was there for prayer. I sang along with the choir and gazed at the frescos. The whole experience was very moving.
  • Last year The Basilica Cathedral Choir sang in Notre Dame de Paris. Though I am not that fond of the dark interior of this church the singing really brightened it up and made it almost sparkle.
  • A sure liturgical highpoint was evening prayer in the church on the Island of Iona after a long journey getting there. There were only a few of us present, but t was as if we joined in prayer with all the Celtic monks who worshiped there many centuries ago.
  • When I was 18 years old I was invited to join the late Pope John Paul for morning Mass in his private chapel. When I entered he was already praying. I can still see him kneeling, his back to me, bent over in prayer.
  • But most importantly, Sunday Eucharist at my home parish in Minneapolis is really my favorite. It is always so wonderful to come home no matter how splendid the liturgy and magnificent the church I just visited.


10) What’s the liturgical advice you’ve never been asked for and would really like to share?

First, dare to demand quality celebrations. Mediocrity fatigues and brings people down, while quality inspires and raises people up.

Second, dare to engage in the celebration of the liturgy. It is ok to sing, kneel, raise your hands and express some feelings. Just think how much emotion even the manliest of men unleash at sports events. Maybe a modicum of that could be reserved for liturgical celebrations because, unless we engage in the liturgy with our mind, heart and soul it is nothing but a spectacle, good or bad with so many gifts that simply pass us by.



Johan van Parys, Ph.D. a native of Belgium 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.

He has been Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis since 1995. In addition, Johan teaches at St. John’s School of Theology. He is founding member and current Chair of the MN/ND Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. Johan enjoys writing, making presentations and consulting with parishes on a variety of topics relating to liturgy and the arts. His book Symbols that Surround Us was published in 2012.


  1. This was a wonderful interview. I hope that everyone who reads it also takes it to heart. The lack of patience and generosity is prevalent in so many of our liturgical discussions (arguments), in our planning and in the implementation of our plans. His thoughts on tradition and evolution validated my belief that there are people who believe in and strive to achieve balance in our liturgies. His last response (10) prompted a firm “Amen” from me.

  2. These thoughts are insightful and the care of the Basilca parish to be a force for good in its community is evident. Thanks praytell.

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