To raise St. Mary Magdalene from an obligatory Memorial to a Feast, as the Church did on June 3 at the express will of Pope Francis, is more than something of liturgical bookkeeping and trivia.
For the first time in its two millennial history, the Catholic Church celebrates tis week St. Mary Magdalene with a Feast, which is an important manifestation of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
The Church has for centuries marked July 22 by remembering St. Mary Magdalene with a "Memorial," a liturgical classification below "Solemnities" and "Feasts."
A Solemnity is celebrated like a Sunday Mass, with four Scripture readings, a Gloria, Creed and often a proper Preface, something that we see, for example, on Holy Days of Obligation as well as the major celebrations of our Lady, Saints Joseph, Peter and Paul and John the Baptist.
A Feast honors the apostles and evangelists, a mystery of Our Lord or our Lady, and, exceptionally, St. Lawrence the Deacon, because of his prominence in the history of the Church in Rome. It has some proper prayers, three readings like a typical daily Mass, some of which can be proper, and a Gloria.
A Memorial is usually of saints but can also celebrate some devotions to our Lord or Lady like Jesus' Holy Name or Mary's Immaculate Heart. Obligatory memorials must be celebrated except when they fall on Sunday; optional memorials are at the discretion of the celebrant. They normally have proper opening prayers and perhaps a proper reading, but there is no Creed, no Gloria, and no unique preface.
To raise St. Mary Magdalene from an obligatory Memorial to a Feast, as the Church did on June 3 at the express will of Pope Francis, is more than something of liturgical bookkeeping and trivia. It's a clear sign that the Church thinks that, among the saints she, like the apostles and evangelists, is particularly important.
In the Decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, it gave three reasons for this liturgical upgrade: St. Mary Magdalene is a witness of the transforming power of Divine Mercy, a model of the indispensable service and dignity of women in the Church, and an epitome of evangelization.
It's fitting today, on her inaugural liturgical Feast, to ponder all three.
St. Mary Magdalene is, first, a model of response to God's mercy. St. Luke and St. Mark tell us that she had had seven demons cast out from her (Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2). She had in some way been under the hold of the devil. St. Augustine surmised that these seven demons may have been the seven deadly sins. Regardless of what their manifestation was, she had experienced the healing power of the Lord.
In order to be a true disciple of the Lord, we, too, need to relate to him in his saving mercy. In a book length interview before he became the successor of Peter, Pope Francis has said that many Catholics have sadly not had the experience of being redeemed by Christ because they do not think they're sinners in need of a Savior. "It's only we great sinners who have this grace," he said. That's a grace we see on beautiful display in the life of Mary Magdalene.
Second, she is an embodiment of the feminine genius at work in the heart of the Church. St. Luke tells us that, after having received Christ's mercy, she was one of several women "who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities" who faithfully accompanied Jesus and the apostles during his journeys and "provided for them out of their resources" (Lk 8:2-3). This was not a group of bored do-gooders who figured that these wandering 13 men would be lost without their spiritual and practical maternity. No, each of them had received from Jesus a physical healing, a spiritual healing, or probably both, and in gratitude wanted to give Jesus and his mission all the love, time and material support they could.
And St. Mary Magdalene particularly excelled in this care. The evangelists all tell us that when almost all of Jesus' disciples abandoned him, St. Mary Magdalene was faithful with him to the end, standing at the foot of the Cross together with the Blessed Mother, with Mary the wife of Clopas, with Salome and with St. John. She remained indomitably faithful with feminine courage at the most difficult moments of discipleship. She helped Mary and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus' body down and prepare it for burial. She returned after the Sabbath to anoint his body. Her care for Christ and his mission is a model for every disciple: she loved Jesus, whose mercy transformed her life, and consecrated her life to him and his redeeming work.
Third, St. Mary Magdalene is an archetype of the apostolate. She was the first person to whom the Risen Lord Jesus appeared and she was sent as the first witness of the Resurrection to the apostles who were quivering in the Upper Room. Jesus commissioned Mary to be, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, apostolorum apostola, the apostle of (or better to) the apostles, the one sent to those who would eventually be commissioned to bring the good news of great joy of Jesus' resurrection to the entire world. Her message was simple. "I have seen the Lord!," she announced, and reported to them what Jesus had told her.
She is an exemplar of the type of evangelization that each of us is meant to carry out, sharing with others the central joyful message of Christian faith: that we have met the Risen, living, life-changing Lord Jesus in his Real Presence, in his Word, in his Mercy, in his Church, and that we can't him to ourselves but want others to know and receive that same Gift. As Pope Benedict commented in an Angelus meditation ten years ago tomorrow: "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."
For today's new feast, the Vatican published a proper preface in Latin, which summarizes St. Mary Magdalene's life and turns it into a prayer. It's entitled "About the Apostle of the Apostles," and as the Church prays it liturgically for the first time, it's good for all of us to offer it to God in unison:
"It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, that in all things we proclaim you, Almighty Father, whose mercy is no less than his power, through Christ our Lord, who revealing himself in the garden appeared to Mary Magdalene who loved Him while he was living, beheld him on the Cross as he was dying, sought him in the tomb as he was lying, and was the first who adored him as he rose from the dead. He honored her with the task of the apostolate before the apostles, so that the good news of new life would reach until the ends of the earth...."
Indeed, as we celebrate St. Mary Magdalene, we celebrate the Mercy, the "good news of new life," that she commenced in her mission to the Apostles, they advanced, and now we continue to bring to everyone we meet.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
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