The Feast of the Apostle Mary Magdalene

The Feast of Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles


Brother Charles

The Vatican, at the prompting of Pope Francis, has promoted the annual liturgical remembrance of Saint Mary Magdalene (her saint’s day on July 22) to the rank of a feast. Thus she will enjoy the same liturgical status as the apostles. The only higher rank of holy day is a “solemnity,” which is something reserved for a few days honoring Jesus, his Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and All Saints. No other woman saint besides the Virgin Mary has ever been accorded the high honor of ‘feast.’ The announcement comes fast on the heels of Pope Francis’ decision to form a committee to study the ancient history of the ordination of women. Given the recent news, however, of the ongoing questioning of American women religious institutions by the Vatican, it is fair to ask if the promotion of Mary Magdalene is anything more than symbolic. The Organizational Development Model of Inclusion, worked out by Moises Baron and Reuben Mitchell and implemented at Saint Mary’s College by Provost Beth Dobkin (1), might identify the change as reflecting a combination of Church leadership’s attempt to respond to external social pressures as well as striving to remember the New Testament’s implicit promise of universal inclusivity. Will this symbolic change matter in the way that women are perceived as ministers? The document accompanying the announcement by the Congregation for Divine Worship on June 3 called Mary the Apostle to the Apostles (Latin: apostolorum apostola), a title it traces back to Saint Thomas Aquinas (2). Celebrating Saint Mary Magdalene as an apostle in public worship may allow the faithful to imagine her as a ministerial peer of the male apostles, a group heretofore representative of the sacramental-hierarchical leadership of the Church. Regardless of the consequences, major changes in the Roman Calendar of the liturgy are rare and this one seems rather monumental.

Magdalene Piero di Cosimo
Piero di Cosimo, Saint Mary Magdalene, ca. 1500-1510, Rome, National Gallery of Ancient Art (Barberini Palace)

So who is Saint Mary Magdalene? She has enjoyed multiple identities over the course of Church history. The following is a brief summary of the Gospel witness and subsequent veneration of this apostle. (3) After Jesus liberated her from seven demons she became a disciple following Jesus in the company of other women who joined him and his apostles. When most everyone abandoned Jesus at his crucifixion she stayed by Blessed Mother Mary and John, the beloved disciple. She was present at the tomb on Sunday morning and was the first to see the Resurrection and reported the Good News to the other apostles. That is all that the New Testament reports. The earliest remembrance of her in the liturgies of the Church are Easter-related, as one of the Myrrh-Bearers at the tomb of Christ and as the first to witness the Resurrection. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) reshaped her biography for subsequent generations by conflating her with two other women in the Gospels, one the penitent woman who washed Jesus’ feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee and the other, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Her saint’s day on July 22 was first observed in the East and appeared in the West in the eighth-century Martyrology of Bede. The legend of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner was solidified in the tenth century with the appearance of an anonymous Life written in southern Italy, which borrowed the details of an earlier Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, a reformed prostitute turned hermit saint of the early patristic era. Churches dedicated in honor of Saint Mary Magdalene sprang up in the eleventh century, with the major center of veneration at the Benedictine abbey church of Vézelay in Burgundy, France, which claimed to have her bones. The Golden Legend, a popular book of saints’ lives by Jacopo de Voragine (d. 1298), enshrined her legends as both a repentant prostitute and a hermit and thus shaped the way she would be portrayed in Christian art for centuries to come. The modern disciplines of history and Scriptural exegesis have removed the medieval layers of hermit and penitent woman from the image of the disciple cured of demonic possession and faithful to Jesus through the Passion and Resurrection.

Magdalena Tintoretto Roma
Domenico Tintoretto, The Penitent Magdalene, 1598-1602, Rome, Capitoline Museums

Time will tell what may come of the elevation of the liturgical memorial to the rank of a feast. There is theological principle that what is practiced in prayer gives the guidelines for belief (Latin: lex orandi, lex credendi). Maybe the practice of the new feast will acclimate people to the work of women leaders in the Church today, who see and announce pathways to new life even in the midst of a most troubled world. The opening prayer for the mass on July 22 invites us all to have recourse to and to follow the lead of the Apostle to the Apostles,

O God, whose Only Begotten Son

entrusted Mary Magdalene before all others

with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection,

grant, we pray,

that through her intercession and example

we may proclaim the living Christ

and come to see him reigning in your glory.

Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

One God, for ever and ever.

Noli me tangere
Jacopo Tintoretto, Noli me tangere, 1575, Toledo, Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art (?)

(1), accessed June 17, 2016

(2), accessed June 17, 2016. The phrase  “Apostle to the Apostles” to describe Mary Magdalene seems to have come into use in the twelfth century, in the Cistercian milieu.

(3) See Maria Chiara Celletti, “Maria Maddalena,” Bibliotheca Sanctorum 8 (Rome: 1967), cols. 1078-1107.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

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