ROME— At Pope Francis’s request, the annual observance on the Catholic calendar of St. Mary Magdalene, referred by some as the “repentant sinner” or “the prostitute,” and also the one who first witnessed and proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection, has been made a major feast marking women as the first evangelizers.
Liturgically speaking, the decision puts Mary Magdalene on par with the celebrations of the male apostles.
On the modern Church calendar, saints are remembered with a “memorial”, a “feast”, or a “solemnity”. On July 22, already designated a feast of Mary Magdalene, there are another 11 saints similarly honored, but now with the decree released on Friday, hers takes precedence.
Published in Latin, the decree was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, headed by Cardinal Robert Sarah. It says that this woman, “recognized as one who loved Christ and who was very dear to him,” can be considered by the faithful as “a paradigm of the ministry of women in the Church.”
In a letter released along with the announcement, the Secretary of the Congregation, Archbishop Arthur Roche, argued that the decision speaks to the current moment facing the Church, which calls for “a deeper reflection on the dignity of women, the New Evangelization, and the greatness of the mystery of Divine Mercy.”
Roche drew attention to the fact Mary Magdalene was the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection, and also the one tasked with sharing the news with the apostles.
“Saint Mary Magdalene is an example of true and authentic evangelization; she is an evangelist who announces the joyful central message of Easter,” he writes.
The British archbishop also says that Francis took this decision in the context of the Holy Year of Mercy to “signify the importance of this woman, who showed a great love for Christ and was much loved by Christ.”
Roche also notes that St. Thomas Aquinas, considered a Doctor of the Church, referred to St. Mary Magdalene as “Apostle of the Apostles,” because she was the one who announced Jesus’ resurrection to them and the world.
“Therefore it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman has the same grade of feast given to the celebration of the apostles in the General Roman Calendar, and shines a light on the special mission of this woman, who is an example and model for every woman in the Church,” Roche wrote.
Although the popular imagination – think Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – is sometimes tempted to fantasize about Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife or lover, in Western Christianity she’s traditionally been identified with three figures in the New Testament: Mary of Magdala (Lk. 8:2); the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears (Lk. 7:36-50); and Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany (Lk. 10:38-42, Jn. 11).
Roche spoke about this tradition, adding that there’s certainty in the fact that “Mary Magdalene was part of the group of disciples of Jesus, she followed him to the foot of the cross and to the garden where his tomb was.”
In the rank of Church celebrations, feasts are the second category, marking some saints, like the apostles, and other important events in Christian history such as the Baptism of the Lord, the Conversion of St. Paul, the Transfiguration.
A solemnity holds the highest rank among Church celebrations, and there are 24 in the annual liturgical calendar, including Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or Corpus Christi. Memorials most often honor and focus us on the life of a saint.
Many observers celebrated the announcement. Jesuit Father James Martin, for instance, called it “a recognition, long overdue,” for the woman “who first announced the Resurrection to the apostles.”
“It reminds us of the supreme importance of women in Jesus’s ministry, and in the Church’s ministry today,” he told Crux. “In fact, between the time she encountered Christ at the tomb and when she proclaimed his Resurrection to them, Mary Magdalene was the Church on earth because only she understood the full meaning of Jesus’s ministry.”
“Any discussion of women in the Church must proceed from that,” he said.
Monsignor James Moroney, a former chief of staff for the U.S. bishops on liturgical matters, said it’s “a wonderful gift” that Francis “raised the celebration of the first witness to the resurrection to the rank of feast.”
Now the rector of Boston’s St. John’s Seminary, Moroney told Crux that to his knowledge, “Saint Mary Magdalene is the first woman other than the Blessed Virgin whose liturgical celebration has been raised to the rank of a feast.”
Moroney said the move reminds him of Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection on Mary Magdalene in 2006: “A disciple of Christ is one who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him and has set out following closely after him, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love that is stronger than sin and death,” the emeritus pope wrote.