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Mary Magdalene: An Apostle for Our Times

Who is Mary Magdalene?

On June 10, 2016, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis elevated the July 22nd observance of Mary Magdalene from a memorial to a liturgical feast. This action places Mary Magdalene’s feast on par with those of the male apostles recognizing her role as the primary witness to the Resurrection and a key figure in our salvation history.

The decree announcing the change, which was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, calls the entire Church “to reflect in a more profound way on the dignity of Woman” and says that Mary of Magdala can serve as “a paradigm of the ministry of women in the Church.”[i]

In a letter accompanying the decree, Congregation Secretary Archbishop Arthur Roche writes, “St. Mary Magdalene is an example of true and authentic evangelization, that is, an evangelizer who proclaims the joyful central message of Easter.” He also recalls that St. Thomas Aquinas gave Mary of Magdala the title “apostle of the apostles” because she was commissioned by Jesus to go and tell the apostles the good news of his resurrection. He concludes, “Therefore it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman should have the same level of festivity given to the apostles in the General Roman Calendar, and that the special mission of this woman be highlighted, as an example and model to every woman in the Church”[ii]

The change and abundant accolades may come as a surprise to many Western Christians who have been wrongly taught throughout their lives that Mary Magdalene was a public sinner or repentant prostitute despite all scriptural evidence to the contrary. Modern biblical scholarship has shown that Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who supported Jesus’ Galilean ministry, an important and faithful disciple who remained near Jesus through his crucifixion. Chosen by Jesus to be the first to witness and proclaim his Resurrection, she was an important leader and evangelist in the early Christian community and an essential model for Catholics today.

The centuries-long effort to discredit Mary Magdalene began early in the history of the Church as non-canonical documents show the tensions brewing between communities that upheld Mary Magdalene’s authority up and against those who wanted to raise the authority of men in the figure of Peter.  The rise of male authority continued to gain strength into the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, prompting the Church to move away from the inclusive practices of Jesus, St. Paul, and the earliest Christian communities and embrace the patriarchal norms of the Roman Empire.  As knowledge of Jesus’ many women disciples and women leaders in the early Christian community began to fade from historical memory, Mary Magdalene’s story was conflated with at least two other women (Mary of Bethany and the anonymous woman of Luke 7:36-50) resulting in what scholars today call the “composite Mary.” Pope St. Gregory I first officially propagated this fallacy during a homily he delivered in around 591:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.[iii]

Thus, Mary Magdalene’s reputation was hijacked and her true role hidden from Western Christians for fourteen centuries. It should be noted that the Eastern Church never accepted this “composite Mary” but honored her throughout history as the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

Interestingly, this elevation to the rank of feast isn’t the first change made to the annual celebration of Mary Magdalene in recent history. The post-conciliar reform of the General Roman Calendar in 1969 brought changes to the July 22nd memorial in what seems to have been a first – if quiet and ineffective – attempt to reject the “composite Mary” of Pope St. Gregory I:

No change has been made in the title of today’s memorial, but it concerns only Saint Mary Magdalene, to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection. It is not about the sister of Saint Martha, nor about the sinful woman whose sins the Lord forgave[iv]. . . it will make mention neither of Mary of Bethany nor of the sinful woman of Luke 7:36–50, but only of Mary Magdalene, the first person to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection[v]

The Gospel reading for the day changed from the story of the sinful woman of Luke to John 20:1-2, 11-18, which recalls Jesus’ first appearance to Mary Magdalene and his subsequent commissioning of her to go and tell the other apostles. At that time, Mary of Bethany’s memorial was moved to July 29th.

Still, centuries of bad exegesis and false history, preaching, art, and story-telling were not erased from the Western Christian imagination by the quiet changes and a few notes in the revised General Roman Calendar.  And so the falsehoods attached to her reputation and the systemic misogyny it represented — lived on.

As a young organization, FutureChurch would take up Mary Magdalene’s cause with Co-founder Christine Schenk leading.  In 1997, FutureChurch launched its international campaign to restore Mary Magdalene to her rightful place as apostle to the apostles.

Twenty-three celebrations were held that first year.  Sponsors were asked to invite a biblical expert to trace Mary’s true story as presented in scripture. The presentations were followed by a prayer service at which women presided, preached and encouraged attendees to reflect on their own encounters with — and witness to — the risen Christ.

With each passing year the movement grew. In 2016, FutureChurch learned that more than 300 individuals and communities around the world who were hosting a celebration.  As the movement grew, creativity abounded. There were many great speakers and preachers, musical celebrations, liturgical dance programs, dramatic reenactments of women leaders in the Church, and countless other variations on the original structure – all of them celebrating the true Mary of Magdala.

Since initiating the world-wide celebrations, FutureChurch has taken additional steps to educate Catholics – including members of the hierarchy – on the true role of Mary Magdalene.

  • In 2014, FutureChurch launched its “Gospel Restoration Project” to help Catholics advocate for a proclamation of the full Resurrection account of John’s Gospel on Easter Sunday, which currently omits the Resurrected Jesus’ appearance to and commissioning of Mary of Magdala in verses 10 through 18 of chapter 20.
  • In August 2014, FutureChurch launched a petition demanding the Legionaires of Christ in Israel stop exploiting Mary of Magdala for the purposes of raising funds for their new project, the Magdala Center.  In their literature to potential funders, they compared Mary of Magdala to their disgraced founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Delgollado. Catholics everywhere signed the petition and, in short order, the Director of the project removed the defamatory literature and apologized.
  • In July 2015, FutureChurch launched a petition and letter writing campaign (#ReclaimMagdala) to address the misrepresentation of Mary of Magdala in the Prayer for Mercy written for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. That petition was delivered to the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization by Executive Director Deborah Rose-Milavec and FutureChurch intern, Luke Hansen, SJ.
  • In 2020 and 2021, FutureChurch launched a massive effort to get the art of Margaret Beaudette, SC, a relief of St. Mary Magdalene Proclaiming the Resurrection with educational materials into Catholic schools across the Northwest of the United States.
  • In 2022, board member Rita L. Houlihan commissioned a new series of Mary Magdalene art reflecting her commission from Jesus and her role as the first witness to the Resurrection.
  • Today, much of FutureChurch’s print and online material about Mary Magdalene features a relief St. Mary of Magdala Proclaiming the Resurrection by Margaret Beaudette, SC, and the art of Laura James both commissioned by long time board member Rita L. Houlihan.  A new series reflecting the Resurrection is underway.

While no single person, organization, campaign, effort or event can claim all the credit for the the elevation, FutureChurch supporters and members certainly played a critical role through their participation in the organization’s nineteen-year effort. Sister Christine Schenk notes:

It’s not often that working to be the change we long to see actually happens in one’s own lifetime.  I am extraordinarily grateful for the providence of God, and for the powerful Holy Spirit energy at work in literally tens of thousands women and men over the past 19 years.  This would not have happened without them.[vi]

While the most recent change is an important milestone in the history of the Church and in FutureChurch’s effort to restore Mary Magdalene to her rightful place, there is still much work to be done to create equality among genders in Catholic Church. FutureChurch will continue to point out injustice in the Church, to stand up for women’s ministry and leadership, to educate, to empower, and to tell the true story of Magdalene, and to lift up the witnesses of women throughout the centuries who spread the Good News.‍

[i]Decree: the celebration of St. Mary Magdalene raised to a feast in the General Roman CalendarJune 10, 2016.

[ii]”Mary Magdalene, Apostle of the Apostles.” Vatican.va. 10 June 2016. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

[iii]Carroll, James. “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” Smithsonian.com. June 2006. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

[iv]Calendarium Romanum(Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 131

[v]Ibid, p. 98

[vi]Schenk, Christine, CSJ. FutureChurch’s 2016 Mary of Magdala Celebration. Cleveland, Ohio. 27 July 2016.

 

 

 

Expanding the Lectionary to Include Our Foremothers in Faith: A Synodal Discernment

Why Expand the Lectionary to Include More of Our Foremothers in Faith?

During all the phases of the synodal process, faith-filled Catholics across the world concurred regarding the pressing need to re-envision women’s roles in the life, ministry, and governance of the Church. In the October 2023 synod synthesis, participants agreed it was “urgent to ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry” (Part II, Section 9, m).

It is urgent to ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry (Part II, Section 9, m).

Further, synod participants rightly perceived the relationship between women’s full participation in the Church and the language, images, and narratives that represent women in our liturgical life. Thus, synod participants also proposed changes so that liturgical texts, including the lectionary, include “a range of words, images, and narratives that draw more widely on women’s experience” (Part II, Section 9, q).

There is a need to ensure that liturgical texts and Church documents are more attentive to the use of language that takes into equal consideration both men and women, and also includes a range of words, images and narratives that draw more widely on women’s experience (Part II, Section 9, q).

There is something of consequence at stake for women and for the church as a whole in the choice of scripture passages which are heard in the regular Sunday morning assembly. The ways in which we understand and know God are formed within the liturgy of the church. What we pray and sing, as well as the stories we re-tell in public worship form and shape what we believe about God, ourselves, and our relationship to God and to each other.

Thus, we might ask, “Do the passages selected over the three-year cycle help or hinder us in dealing with what it means for women to have a full and equal role in both church and society? Do the lections chosen praise women for being subordinate or cast them as people who brought sin into the world? Are the stories about women which are in the Bible adequately represented in the lectionary, or does the choice of Sunday readings give the impression that the Bible, and thus our salvation history, is even more male-cemtered than it actually is?”

The insights of synod participants regarding the need to be more inclusive of women’s narratives in our lectionary have been noted by other prominent scholars and officials since the Second Vatican Council. They have raised awareness about the omission of women from the lectionary recognizing that, as Pope Benedict XVI stated, “without the generous contribution of many women, the history of Christianity would have developed very differently,” adding that the “female presence in the sphere of the primitive Church” was in no way “secondary.”

In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission asked that lectionary readings be “more abundant, more varied, and more suitable” and in 2008, the participants at the Synod on the Word, in Proposition XVI asked that “an examination be carried out of the Roman Lectionary to see if the current selection and ordering of the readings is truly adequate to the mission of the church in this historical moment.”

The late Sr. Ruth Fox, OSB, in her respected analysis, “Women in the Bible and the Lectionary” wrote,

A careful analysis of the lectionary reveals that a disproportionate number of passages about the women of the Bible have been omitted. Women’s books, women’s experiences and women’s accomplishments have been largely overlooked in the assigned scripture readings that are being proclaimed in our churches on Sundays and weekdays.

Other prestigious Catholic scholars affirm Sr. Fox’s insights and have written extensively about the “woman gaps” in our Catholic lectionary showing how biblical passages that feature women as prophets, leaders, co-workers, apostles, disciples, deacons, patrons, and ministers in the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures are excluded on Sundays and holy days, relegated to weekdays when few will hear the readings, or made optional. In referring to the omission of readings about women in our lectionary, Professor emerita Katherine Tillman of Notre Dame further notes that “if women’s stories are omitted from the readings, they are not likely to appear in homilies.”

While the Church has honored the contributions of women in important ways, there is a lacuna when it comes to proclaiming their stories of faith, courage, and leadership at mass depriving the faithful of the inspirational narratives of our foremothers in faith whose courage, ministry, sacrifice, and tenacity expanded Christianity throughout the world and shaped our tradition in essential ways. These overlooked stories have the effect of silencing the voices of our foremothers in faith whose voices are indispensable in our broken world today.

Resources

Women in the Bible and Lectionary by Sr. Ruth Fox, OSB (text)

Amnesia in the Lectionary by Regina A. Boisclair (audio) (text, Women in Theology)

We Must Restore the Powerful Witness of Women Leaders to the Catholic Lectionary by Sr. Christine Schenk, CSJ (text)

Lectionary Readings that Subordinate Women by FutureChurch (text)

Mary Magdalene: Witness, Leader, Disciple, and Apostle to the Apostles by Sr. Christine Schenk, CSJ (text)

Rereading Biblical Women by Dr. Jamie Waters (video, Boston College)

We Need More Women in the Lectionary by Jean Kelly

Restoring John 20: 1 – 18 to our Easter Sunday Lectionary – (With comparison between U.S. reading and Canadian reading) (text)

Reading the Bible in the Lectionary: Gift and Challenge by Sr. Eileen Schuller, OSU (text) (video)

The Feast of St. Phoebe by Sr. Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ (text) (video)

Women Erased from the Lectionary by Michael Peppard, Ph.D. of Fordham University (video)

Women’s Prophetic Leadership Changed the Face of the Roman Empire by Sr. Christine Schenk, CSJ (text, Vatican News)

It’s Not All About Eve: Rediscovering the Feminine Faces in the Bible by Sr. Christine Schenk, CSJ (text, America Magazine)

 

How the Lectionary was Formed and Revised

Vatican II’s 1963 “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” called for a wider selection of biblical texts to be used at Mass thus opening the Bible to Catholics in brand new ways. On Palm Sunday in 1970, as a result of the mandated changes, a new, three-year cycle lectionary was instituted introducing a greater number of books and passages from the Bible to Catholics, as well as, many more sources for preaching.  As a result, Catholics are much better informed about scripture and the stories of faith that form the foundation for the work of the Gospel today.

The current Lectionary (book of those readings) was prepared by an international committee of experts and went into use on Palm Sunday, 1970.  It has been minimally revised twice.  It includes three-cycles of readings (A, B, C ) for Sundays with the majority of readings coming from Matthew (A), Mark (B) and Luke (C) respectively while the Gospel of John is used for the Easter season, some Sundays in Cycle B, and other times.  Weekday readings were organized into a two-year cycle.

The Lectionary cycles present 14 percent of the Old Testament and 71 percent of the New Testament. In contrast, the readings in the 1963 Roman Missal used 1 percent of the Old Testament and 17 percent of the New Testament.

Generally, Catholics believe that the stories they hear proclaimed at mass are, in fact, the “heart” of our foundational faith stories – the stories we need to hear most to nurture and inspire us to carry out the work of the Gospel for today’s world.  Determining what would be included in the lectionary was a deliberative process conducted by male.  In that process, stories were included and others were left out. Further, an examination of the lectionary reveals that many of the stories of prominent foremothers in faith have been left out.

 

Sources

Liturgy Reflections:  Who is Responsible for our Current Lectionary?  

How Are Mass Readings Chosen? by Pat McCloskey, OFM

Main Differences Between 1970 and 1998 Lectionary by Felix Just SJ

The Scandalous (but true) Story Behind ICEL’s 1969 Lectionary for Mass by Paul Innwood

Lenten Fasting and Body Hatred with Jessica Coblentz, Ph.D.

Jessica Coblentz joins FutureChurch to present on her article “Catholic Fasting Literature in a Context of Body Hatred: A Feminist Critique” in which she argues that the social conditions of misogynistic body hatred and the culture of fasting during Lent perpetuates disordered eating.

Jessica Coblentz, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, where her research and teaching focuses on Catholic systematic theology, feminist theologies, and mental health in theological perspective. She is a graduate of Santa Clara University and Harvard Divinity School, and received her PhD from Boston College. She was previously a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute in Collegeville, Minnesota, and has taught at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California.

Conversations in the Spirit: FutureChurch Interim Stage Listening Sessions for the Synod on Synodality

Please Note: These sessions have now concluded
and our Interim Stage Synthesis was submitted to the US Synod Team
and to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in Rome
on April 8, 2024. 

Join FutureChurch as we engage together in “Conversations in the Spirit” to deepen our engagement with one another and continue our journey toward the October 2024 Assembly of the Synod on Communion, Participation, and Mission.

FutureChurch will host three stand-alone sessions at different times to allow for as much participation as possible. Each session will last approximately 2 hours. Pick the session that works best for you and your schedule:

  • Saturday, March 9 at 9 -11am ET
  • Monday, March 11 at 7-9pm ET
  • Saturday, March 16 at 12N – 2pm ET

Please note: Small breakout groups engaging in conversations with others will be integral to these sessions. If you are unwilling or unable to participate in a breakout group, these aren’t the sessions for you. Instead, we invite you to fill out our questionnaire. Your input, regardless of whether or not you attend a listening session, will be incorporated into our report, which we will send to the USCCB Synod Committee and post to our website.

In this interim phase, the USCCB Synod Committee has posed two questions which will guide our conversations and subsequent synthesis report:

  1. Where have I seen or experienced successes—and distresses—within the Church’s structure(s)/organization/leadership/life that encourage or hinder the mission?
  2. How can the structures and organization of the Church help all the baptized to respond to the call to proclaim the Gospel and to live as a community of love and mercy in Christ?

Resources for Preparation:
To prepare for these Conversations in the Spirit we encourage you to spend some time reviewing the following resources:

Please Respond to Our Questionnaire

https://futurechurch.org/interim-stage-questionnaire/

We have developed a questionnaire based on the questions posed by the USCCB Synod Committee. Your responses to the questionnaire will serve two functions 1. Preparing you to make your contributions to your small group if you are joining one of our listening sessions and 2. Providing data to us as we develop our written report, which we will send to the USCCB committee.

How to Have a Conversation in the Spirit

The 2021-2024 Synod on Communion, Participation, and Mission has introduced Catholics to a way of discerning together called “Conversations in the Spirit.” This is the method was used by delegates at the October 2023 Assembly and is a method that the entire Church is being invited into, particularly during the interim phase of the Synod leading to the October 2024 Assembly. More than exchange of ideas, it is a spiritual journey to help discover and name convergences and overcome divergences and to uncover steps the Holy Spirit is revealing. The method is meant to draw participants closer to one another as they listen to one another and together for what The Spirit is calling forth from the Church.

Below are the steps in having a Conversation in the Spirit.

Step One: Personal Preparation

Each person begins on their own by entering into prayer to meditate on the question(s) being asked and to consider their own future contributions to the larger group.

Step Two: Taking the Word and Listening

The communal discernment begins with a silence, prayer, and listening to the Word of God. Then each participant takes turns speaking from his or her own experience and prayer while also listening attentively to the others. This initial exchange is followed by a time of prayerful silence.

Step Three: Making Space for Others and The Other

Then after having listened to what others have said and prayed with it, each individual shares what has resonated most with him or her or what has aroused the most resistance in him or her, allowing himself or herself to be guided by the Holy Spirit: “When, listening,
did my heart burn within me?” After each has shared there is another moment of prayerful silence.

Step Four: Building Together

Together we dialogue on the basis of what emerged earlier in order to discern and gather the fruit of the conversation in the Spirit: to recognize intuitions and convergences; to identify discordances, obstacles and new questions; to allow prophetic voices to emerge. It is important that everyone can feel represented by the outcome of the work. “To what steps is the Holy Spirit calling us together?”

Step Five: Final Prayer or Song of Thanksgiving to God


Additional Resources

Fr. David McCallum, SJ, Executive Director of Discerning Leadership and facilitator at the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod leads a webinar on Conversations in the Spirit

View

 

 

 

From Unfathomable Grief to Unsurpassed Joy: Women of Lent and Easter with Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman

Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman joins FutureChurch to offer this beautiful time of reflection on the Women of Lent and Easter: Mary and Martha of Bethany; Mary, the mother of Jesus; and Mary Magdalene.  Accompany them as they each offer gifts: sheltering Jesus, standing with him at the Cross, and witnessing the greatest miracle of all — the Resurrection.

About our leader: Writer, storyteller, mother and Episcopal priest, the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman is committed to freeing Bible women and other Bible characters from the dusty, dry literary caskets in which they seem to have been trapped for centuries. A North American Ministerial Fellow and Cox Fellow, she received her Master of Arts in Theological Studies and Master of Divinity from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, and is the author/co-author/editor of ten books and over 100 articles on faith and church life. She and her team of researchers were the first to count and profile all the women whose words are recorded in the Bible, resulting in the publication of Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter (Forward Movement). Learn more at https://www.lindsayhardinfreeman.com/ 

Chat Transcript: Rev. Hardin Freeman made use of the chat to interact with participants throughout our time of reflection. Women Of Lent And Easter Chat.

Co-Creating Beauty: Queer Bodies and Queer Love with Craig Ford, Jr.

Dr. Ford’s presentation, “Co-Creating Beauty: Queer Bodies and Queer Loves Beyond the Anathemas” explores how our roles as co-creators with God allows for new ways to understand the truth revealed by sexuality and gender identity beyond the boundaries of heteronormativity. Such redeployment of this theological status as co-creator, Ford argues, may provide a pathway beyond the impasse currently experienced at the level of official church teaching with respect to these topics.

Craig A. Ford, Jr., Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Norbert College, where he teaches courses in Christian Ethics, Ecclesiology, and on Race, Gender and Sexuality while also serving as Co-Director for the Peace and Justice Interdisciplinary Minor. He is also on the faculty at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies—hosted at Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s only Catholic HBCU— where he teaches courses on Black Theology as well as on Topics in Moral Theology from a Black Perspective. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School, and Boston College, Dr. Ford writes on topics at the intersection of queer theory, blac studies, and the Catholic moral tradition. His most recent book project, All of Us: The Future of Catholic Theology From the Perspectives of Queer Theologians of Color is a co-edited volume with Bryan Massingale and Miguel Diaz, drawing scholars and activists from North and South America, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and Europe who seek to chart new directions for Catholic theology when the oppressive realities of racism, heteronormativity, and sexism within church and world are engaged equally and fiercely. This volume is currently under contract with Fortress Press.