Earlier this month, Spanish journalist Paloma Garcia Ovejero was tapped for the number-two position in the Holy See press office. She was immediately swarmed by press and headlines – and fascination — because she is a woman, and a laywoman at that. I loved her answer to questions prodding her about a milestone aspect to this.

She emphasized Mary’s preeminent role in the Church in bringing souls to her Son and Mary Magdalene, the apostle of the apostles, who Jesus chose to see Him resurrected first, asking her to go and tell what she’s seen, the truth – the eternally blessed good news of redemption.

July 22 this year marks the first time the Church will celebrate Mary Magdalene with a feast day. She’s long been a patron of the Dominican order, which celebrates its 800th year this year, in a double jubilee with the year of mercy. I talked with Sr. Mary Catherine Perry of Jesus, O.P., of the Summit Dominicans, a cloistered community in New Jersey, about this woman so close to Jesus and the feast and what it means for the Church.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Pope Francis just made Mary Magdalene more of a big deal on the Church calendar. What’s up with that? Why is it important?

 Sr. Mary Catherine Perry of Jesus, O.P: Pope Francis explained the reasons why he raised St. Mary Magdalene’s memorial to a feast in the liturgical calendar. But I also think that he was cooperating with God’s grace in doing it during the 800th Jubilee Year of the Order of Preachers!

During the years between the Dominican Nuns Jubilee in 2006 and this year, I don’t think any Dominican said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the Pope would proclaim our Jubilee Year an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy?” Or, “I really hope the Pope raises St. Mary Magdalene’s memorial to a feast!”

These are gifts for the Church, but in God’s plan they are uniquely gifts to the Order of Preachers as it continues the mission to preach the Gospel for the salvation of souls.

Dominicans were ahead of the curve here? Why is she such a big deal to the order? 

From very early on St. Mary Magdalene was one of the two patronesses of the Order of Preachers. The other is my patroness, St. Catherine of Alexandria.

She is a big deal because in the medieval world St. Mary Magdalene, because of her penitence and because she was the first to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection, was seen as a model of how repentance opens us up to the grace of the mercy of Christ and in turn enable one to bring others to Christ.

Blessed Humbert of Romans, second Master of the Order after St. Dominic wrote, “After Magdalene was converted to penitence the Lord bestowed such great grace upon her that after the Blessed Virgin no woman could be found to whom greater reverence should be shown in this world and greater glory in heaven.” Those are powerful words!

Is there something particularly significant about Mary Magdalene for our time? 

There is something perennial about St. Mary Magdalene, no matter what the century. I do think that especially today she shows us that to be a preacher of the Good News a woman need not be a priest.

A woman has an inherent dignity from which she can witness to others of God’s love and mercy.

From my own experience as a cloistered nun, people will talk to us in the parlor about things that they are perhaps afraid to bring to a priest either in confession or outside of it. As spiritual mothers we can listen and encourage them to change things in their lives, go to confession, etc. Not always, of course, but I have experienced it.

(Photo courtesy of the Dominican Monastery Of Our Lady Of The Rosary.)
(Photo courtesy of the Dominican Monastery Of Our Lady Of The Rosary.)

Lopez: What have you learned from her?

Sr. Mary Catherine: To be truthful I never had much of a devotion to St. Mary Magdalene. After all, my patroness is St. Catherine! However, over the years, especially through the liturgy of St. Mary Magdalene’s feast I’ve come to appreciate her more.

Also, the older I get the more aware I am of my need for God’s forgiveness which he lavishes on me especially in the Sacrament of Confession! As a woman I am, well, proud, that a woman was the first witness to the Resurrection, the first to proclaim the Good News!

What do you think Christ is teaching us with His interactions with her in Scripture?

God’s total, eternal, boundless, unconditional love for us!

From my female point of view, I would say that Jesus is teaching men how to act toward women, not treating them like sex objects on one hand or as possible temptresses on the other. On the morning of the Resurrection the garden of Genesis is redeemed in Jesus’ encounter with Mary whom he sends out, not in condemnation but to proclaim the good news of his resurrection.

Women have an important part in the proclamation of the Word, in passing on the Faith to our children.

My founder, St. Dominic knew that. He has a special charism with women. He must have received that from his mother, Bl. Jane of Aza. He wasn’t afraid to be with them. In fact, on his death bed he confessed that he preferred to talk with young women rather than be talked at by old women!

He knew the importance of women in the preaching of the Gospel and thus when he had a group of nine women converts from the Albigensians he saw their need and with his bishop, Bishop Diego, provided for them by starting a “monastery”. I say that with quotes because the monastery in Prouilhe in Southern France was no more than an abandoned church and some tumbled-down buildings. This monastery was called “a holy preaching.”

How will your July 22 look different this year? Any ideas for those of us outside cloisters can mark it in a significant way?

In our monastery by long-standing custom, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene is the “Professed Feast Day!” The novices take over the kitchen and do all sorts of special (and often crazy things) for the professed community. It’s a recreation day.

Of course we continue singing the Divine Office and have our Adoration and Rosary, but other than that it is recreation for the professed Sisters. Meanwhile, the novices are in the kitchen either creating a special meal or creating a disaster! Now, most women who enter can cook, so the disasters are further apart. One of our novices comes from a family that runs a catering business so that has helped a lot!

So, how will the day look different? Liturgically it will be celebrated as a feast! For us it is in the liturgy that we mark the significance of special feasts. We’re not much for “extras”. We have special elements for the Divine Office in our Dominican books for the Office that give the day a particularly Dominican character.

Usually, when July 22nd falls on a Friday we celebrate her feast day as usual but we move the Professed Feast Day to another day as Fridays are fast days for us. Because of the significance of St. Mary Magdalene being raised to a feast by the Church, we aren’t doing that this time, and the prioress has dispensed the community. Now for nuns, this is hugely significant, as only on Solemnities and during the Easter Octave do we not fast on Friday.

I’m not sure quite what would be a parallel in the secular world!

The best way to mark the feast is to go to Mass, and especially to go to the Sacrament of Confession to experience God’s forgiving love and mercy no less than did St. Mary Magdalene! And perhaps find a way to preach the Good News! Maybe not in words but in actions.

A smile to a difficult coworker, an extra prayer for the person who cut you off on the highway, an encouraging word. There are small, ordinary ways we can radiate the joy of Christ.