On July 22 we celebrate the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. On the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart this year, June 3, Pope Francis declared that the celebration of this great saint would be inscribed in the Roman Calendar with the rank of feast rather than memorial as it formerly had. Nothing really changes in regard to the official day on which the celebration of St. Mary Magdalen takes place. However, there is a great difference in regard to the celebration of the liturgy for the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. Before we reflect upon this saint whom St. Thomas Aquinas designated as the Apostle of the Apostles, it is good to understand how the celebration of saints is designated in the liturgy. We generally use the word feast to cover all levels of celebration but there are three basic categories which are memorial, feast and solemnity.
A memorial is generally the most common celebration for a saint which we encounter at Mass each day. There are two types of memorials - an optional one and an obligatory one. An optional memorial means that since it is the particular date to celebrate a saint, the Mass is generally celebrated for the saint but another Mass can be substituted. The Mass can be that of the particular day of Ordinary Time or any of the other celebrations for particular intentions outlined by the Church. If the memorial is obligatory, then the Mass for the saint cannot be substituted by another intention or celebration. The celebration of St. Mary Magdalene was, up to this year, an obligatory memorial, now it is a feast. A feast has more solemnity than a memorial and usually honors a mystery or title of Christ, of Mary, or celebrates a saint of particular importance such as an apostle, a certain martyr or a saint of great historical importance. A feast has its own particular readings and includes the praying of the Gloria. A solemnity is the highest form of celebration which, outside of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, is celebrated at Mass even when it falls on a Sunday. A solemnity has three readings, rather than the usual two, and includes the praying of the Gloria and the proclamation of the Creed.
Because Pope Francis has designated the celebration of St. Mary Magdalene as a feast, it points to an increased importance to her role in the life of the Church and as a model for all the faithful. This decision seeks to emphasize more deeply the importance and dignity of women in the life of the Church as well as in general. It also seeks to emphasize the importance of the New Evangelization to offer the opportunity to reflect more deeply upon the mystery of God's mercy. Pope Francis uses the designation of St. Thomas Aquinas, Apostle of the Apostles, for St. Mary Magdalene because of her being the first to see the risen Christ and of her announcement to the apostles of His message. This is what is most central to St. Mary Magdalene in the life of the Church, even though a great many traditions and legends have surrounded this great saint.
St. Mary Magdalene is prominent in all four of the Gospels. She was a follower of Christ, probably from Magdala, near Tiberias, on the west shore of Galilee. She accompanied Christ and ministered to him as a close disciple (cf Lk 8:2-3). Mary is identified in the Gospels as the one from whom the Lord had delivered seven demons (cf Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2-3). Misunderstanding has arisen in regard to St. Mary Magdalene because of this deliverance. She was present at the crucifixion of Jesus remaining at the foot of the Cross (cf Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; Jn 19:25). She witnessed the placing of the Lord in the tomb (cf Mt 27:61; Mk 15:47). Her prominence is that she is the first recorded eyewitness of the empty tomb and therefore of Christ's resurrection (cf Mt 28:1-10, Mk 16:1-8, Lk 24:10, Jn 20:1). It is significant that all four Gospels record this reality and also significant that it was women who were the first to go to the tomb to pay their respects to the Lord. What is extremely significant is the account of St. John in which St. Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the risen Christ outside of the tomb. This moving account is one of great tenderness, so appropriate for this Year of Mercy, in which Mary does not at first recognize the Risen Lord but responds as He personally calls her name (cf Jn 20:11-18). Also significant is the Lord's commission to Mary, "Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I'm going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God' " (cf Jn 20:17). It is from here that Mary Magdalene went to the Apostles both as a witness to the Risen Lord and with the announcement of the Lord to them.
Of the many traditions which have arisen regarding Mary Magdalene, two of them are of a scriptural basis. Mary Magdalene is identified with the sinful woman who anointed Christ's feet (cf Lk 7:36-50). This is a very moving account of an unnamed woman in the Gospel of St. Luke which was just read a few Sundays ago. Another is the identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha (cf Lk 10:38–42; Jn 11:1-14, 12:1-9). Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, Martha and Mary were close friends of Jesus. By the sixth century many, including Pope St. Gregory the Great, identified Mary Magdalene with the other Marys in Scripture. This identification influenced many western ecclesiastical authors as well as Christian art and liturgical texts. From the biblical point of view, while it is possible that the three Marys mentioned in the Gospels could be the same, there is no decisive evidence to establish this as fact. Avoiding these identifications, the Second Vatican Council clearly referred to Mary Magdalene in the liturgical reform as the first to be at the tomb and the first to witness the Risen Lord. She was in the words of Gregory the Great, the first "witness of divine mercy" as Jesus transformed her tears into joy at their meeting at the tomb.
The decision of Pope Francis to raise the celebration of St. Mary Magdalen to that of a liturgical feast certainly confirms the position of the Church in regard to the position of Mary Magdalene as the first to witness the risen Christ and who was entrusted with the message of announcing His Resurrection to the apostles. The decision likewise confirms her "witness of divine mercy" especially during this Year of Mercy and emphasizes the importance of women in the Church so essential in the ministry of the Lord himself. This importance in the ministry of Christ is evident in the witness of many women who accompanied Christ in His ministry and who were the first to be at the empty tomb. The theology of the Second Vatican Council in regard to the liturgical emphasis of St. Mary Magdalene is well summed up in the opening prayer for the Mass in her honor: "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 Him reigning in your glory." The decision to raise the celebration of St. Mary Magdalen to that of a liturgical feast has also included the inclusion of a new preface for the Mass of her feast. This preface will be translated into English by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for inclusion in next year's liturgical text.
Among many popes, including Pope Francis and St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is another with great devotion to St. Mary Magdalene. Of her he said: "St. Mary Magdalene was a disciple of the Lord who plays a lead role in the Gospels. ... 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." These words truly sum up what underlies the decision of Pope Francis in regard to the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.
Happy Feast of St. Mary of Magdalene, who is truly an Apostle of the Apostles!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
July 15, 2016