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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.