It has recently been announced that Pope Francis has elevated the liturgical celebration honoring St. Mary Magdalene from a memorial to a major feast. This decision recognizes St. Mary Magdalene’s role as the first witness to see the risen Lord and as the first to announce the Resurrection of Jesus to the Apostles. This change is significant, as it places her liturgical celebration on the same level as those of the Twelve Apostles. Archbishop Arthur Roche, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in an article to the Vatican newspaper, stated that Pope Francis has made this decision during the current Church context and during the Jubilee of Mercy to emphasize the importance of St. Mary Magdalene, a woman “who showed great love for Christ and was much loved by Christ.” Also “it seeks to reflect more deeply upon the dignity of women, upon the new evangelization and on the greatness of the mystery of God’s mercy.”
Significance of a Feast
Most Catholics refer to all levels of Church celebrations as generally being feast days. In particular, we refer to the day dedicated to a particular saint as being a “feast”. However, this term is only one of three categories in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, with solemnities and memorials being the other two. A solemnity ranks the highest among liturgical celebrations. There are 24 in the annual Church calendar. They commemorate important events in the life of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary and are normally reserved for the most important mysteries of faith including Christmas, Easter, the Ascension, and the Immaculate Conception. Certain important saints are honored with a solemnity, such as St. Joseph, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and Sts. Peter and Paul.
A feast is ranked second among liturgical celebrations and recalls such important events in Christian history as the Baptism of the Lord, the Transfiguration, the Conversion of St. Paul, and the Visitation. A feast also honors saints of particular significance, such as the Apostles and the Evangelists. A memorial is third in rank and usually celebrates and focuses our attention on the life of a particular saint. It may be optional or obligatory.
Up until now, St. Mary Magdalene had been honored on July 22 with an obligatory memorial. However, with the decree issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, her celebration has now been elevated to the dignity of feast on the liturgical calendar. About 11 other saints are remembered on this same day, but from now on hers will take precedence. Her liturgical celebration will now be on par with the celebrations of the Apostles and recognizes St. Mary Magdalene’s importance to the Church. She is the first woman, other than the Blessed Virgin Mary, who has the honor of being celebrated with a feast.
The reason for this decision, according to Archbishop Arthur Roche, is that St. Mary Magdalene has the great honor of being the first witness to encounter the risen Lord and was also the first to announce Jesus’ Resurrection to the Apostles. In a letter issued on June 10, the same day the decree was published, Archbishop Roche stated:
[Mary Magdalene] is the witness to the risen Christ and announces the message of the Lord’s resurrection just like the rest of the Apostles. For this reason it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman should have the same rank of Feast as that given to the celebration of the Apostles in the General Roman Calendar and that the special mission of this woman should be underlined, she who is an example and model for all women in the Church.
The Figure of Mary Magdalene
In Western Christianity, the figure of Mary Magdalene has been traditionally identified with three women in the New Testament: Mary of Magdala (Luke 8:2), the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with perfumed oils and washed them with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), and Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42; John 11). What is known for certain is that Mary Magdalene was part of a group of disciples who accompanied Jesus and ministered to him (Luke 8:2-3). She followed him even to his Crucifixion, being one of the women present beneath his Cross. Unlike the Twelve, these women did not abandon Jesus in the hour of his Passion (Matthew 27:56, 61; Mark 15:40). Mary Magdalene witnessed his death, the piercing of his side, and the blood and water flowing from it (John 19:34). She was the first to witness the empty tomb and the risen Christ, as well as being the first to announce this momentous event. Even though, at the time, a woman’s testimony was not considered valid legally, Jesus commissioned her to testify before the Apostles of all that she had seen and heard (John 20:11-18).
Saint John Paul II concentrated much effort on the role and importance of women both in the mission of Jesus Christ, as well as in the mission of the Church as a whole, paying attention specifically to the unique role played by Mary Magdalene. In Mulieris dignitatem n. 16 (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”), he highlighted Mary Magdalene’s role as the first eyewitness of the risen Lord and as the first messenger who announced Jesus’ Resurrection to the Apostles. She was commissioned directly by the risen Christ to bear witness to him and share this joyous news with them. The Apostles in turn proclaimed the news of his Resurrection to the world. Thus, St. Mary Magdalene has come to be called “Apostle of the Apostles” (Apostolorum Apostola), a title used also by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Importance of St. Mary Magdalene Today
The Gospel of John is particularly important in understanding the role and significance of St. Mary Magdalene. It describes her as “weeping outside the tomb” (John 20:11). Her weeping indicates her overwhelming grief, anxiety, and sorrow. She is in tears because she has discovered that Jesus’ tomb is empty, his body missing. In contrast to the disciples who have departed, Mary Magdalene stands outside the Lord’s tomb, refusing to leave it, as earlier she had stood by his Cross. Her persistence and tears demonstrate the great love and affection she has for Jesus. As Archbishop Roche stated:
Christ showed special consideration and mercy to this woman who showed her love for Christ by seeking him in her anguish and suffering in the garden, or as Saint Anselm says … with ‘lacrimas humilitatis’ (‘the tears of humility’).
The Lord appeared to her and completely transformed her tears of sorrow into paschal joy, thus fulfilling the prediction he made to his disciples in John 16:20 that “you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.” Mary Magdalene shows us to seek the risen and living Lord in the darkness, through struggles and tears, with the trust that in the end we will encounter him.
The garden setting of the tomb where Jesus was laid in the Gospel of John may be an allusion to the creation account in Genesis, where God is depicted as walking and speaking with the first couple in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:8).. The Archbishop contrasts Eve, the woman present in the Garden of Paradise, and Mary Magdalene, the woman present in the Garden of the Resurrection. He states that “the first spread death where there was life; the second announced life from a sepulchre, the place of death.” Mary Magdalene is an example for the Church as a whole, for every follower of Jesus, to search for the risen Lord with faith and a deep sense of humility and love. Jesus’ words to her, “Do not cling to me” (John 20:17), teach us to raise ourselves above any attachment to the physical and earthly realities and reach the level of true faith in the living Christ.
The example of St. Mary Magdalene is important in the Church today as a model of genuine and faithful evangelization. As Archbishop Roche explains, “Saint Mary Magdalene is an example of a true and authentic evangeliser, which is an evangelist who announces the central joyful message of Easter.” Her example is of particular importance in highlighting the role of women in the new evangelization. Their contribution can be valuable, as they can spread the gospel message to people and places that men are often unable to reach.
The reflection of Pope Benedict XVI on the figure and example of Mary Magdalene is of particular note. He described her as a disciple of Jesus, who has a central role in the Gospels. In his address before the Angelus on July 23, 2006, he stated:
The story of Mary of Magdala reminds us all of a fundamental truth: 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 risen Lord showed Mary Magdalene a very special mercy by both appearing to her and entrusting her with the extraordinary mission of announcing the news of his Resurrection. She is thus an example of an authentic disciple, one who approaches Jesus with humility, follows him eagerly and with love, being a witness to the merciful love Jesus has shown her.
Pope Francis’ decision to raise St. Mary Magdalene’s liturgical celebration to a feast is clearly significant. It underlines the importance of St. Mary Magdalene and indeed of all women in the life of the Church. It emphasizes her unique mission as witness to the resurrection and her role as a model for every woman in the Church. Her humility, perseverance, and love are an example to us all of an authentic disciple and true evangelizer.