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A Proper Feast: Why elevating the memorial of Mary of Magdala matters

FutureChurch Co-Director and resident liturgist, Russ Petrus, shares exactly why the 2016 elevation of Mary Magdalene’s celebration from a memorial to a feast matters:

On July 22nd of this year, for the first time ever, the Church celebrated the Feast day of St. Mary of Magdala. Yet, some Catholics may not immediately see why celebrating Mary of Magdala with a feastday makes a difference. Still others may wonder whether or not this is actually a change, “haven’t we been celebrating the feast day of St. Mary of Magdala these last many years?” they might ask.

So why does it matter? Because of hierarchy. Now, many of us would like to move away from the hierarchical model of thinking, being, and doing Church. Yet, in much of the institutional Church, hierarchy is the only way of thinking, being, and doing Church. Elevating the celebration of St. Mary of Magdala places her in a new category in the Communion of Saints, a category she shares with only a handful of saints of the most significance in the life and history of the Church. This promotion also brings new liturgical benefits to her celebration that make it more likely that Catholics will learn who Mary of Magdala really was. And so this change, does make a difference, particularly in an institutional Church that thinks hierarchically and liturgically.

The Hierarchy of Feast Days

It’s important to know that while Catholics refer to almost any special day in the liturgical calendar as a “feast day,” there are actually three separate ranks of what we call “feast” days. A hierarchy.

Solemnities are at the top of the hierarchy. These are the celebrations of greatest importance for the Church. Solemnities include important moments in our faith such as Christmas, Easter, The Ascension, and Pentecost. Solemnities also mark key mysteries of our faith and major titles for Jesus like Trinity Sunday, The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Christ the King Sunday. Few individual saints are celebrated universally with Solemnities, though All Saints Day is a Solemnity. Those saints who are celebrated with a solemnity are Mary the mother of Jesus and her husband Joseph, John the Baptist, and Sts. Peter and Paul. There are also proper solemnities, which celebrate a saint with a solemnity only in a particular geographic place or within a particular religious community. For instance, in Ireland, St. Patrick is celebrated with a proper solemnity. In the United States, however, St. Patrick is celebrated with a memorial.

Feasts are the second rank of celebration. Feasts generally celebrate titles for and some events in the life of Jesus, such as The Baptism of the Lord, The Transfiguration, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Feasts are also used to honor many major Marian celebrations and saints of major and universal importance: the evangelists, the apostles, and now Mary of Magdala.

Memorials – the third and final rank– are also the most numerous on the calendar. The memorial most often celebrates a saint (prior to the change, Mary of Magdala had been celebrated with a memorial) and most saints are celebrated with a memorial. Though, some aspects of Jesus or Mary are celebrated with a memorial: the Holy Name of Jesus or the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Memorials are separated into two types: obligatory (not to be confused with holy days of obligation) and optional. If Mass is being celebrated on a day with an obligatory memorial it must be observed, while optional memorials need not be celebrated. Mary of Magdala’s feast had been an obligatory memorial.

Why Rank Them?

Such a structure serves practical purposes in a Church that thinks both hierarchically and liturgically. For a Church that thinks hierarchically, this structure helps sort out which mysteries, events, titles, and people are of more importance in the life of the Church and therefore take precedence over others. This can be especially helpful when a date on the calendar gets “double booked.” Those commemorations with a higher ranking take precedent over lower ranking commemorations should they land on the same date.

For a Church that thinks liturgically, this structure helps to determine how much “pomp and circumstance” goes into a celebration. Generally, in the institutional Church’s liturgical imagination, more is better. And so the higher the rank, the more elements in the celebration

A Solemnity looks much like a Sunday Mass and some Solemnities have a vigil Mass the night before. There are three proper readings, which interrupt the flow of the daily readings that is previously set in the liturgical calendar. Both the Creed and Gloria – even during Advent and Lent –are recited. They have prayers throughout the Mass that are specific to them. And at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist there is a preface that is recited by the presider leading up to the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) that is specific to that Solemnity.

The typical feast does not have a vigil Mass the night before. Feasts usually have prayers that are proper to them including a preface, a Gloria, and have two proper readings. Feasts of the Lord that land on a Sunday in Ordinary Time or at Christmas are treated a little bit differently and usually have more elements.

Memorials are a simpler affair and usually have a proper opening prayer and may have proper readings. However, the readings of the day may be used, and the lectionary recommends against interrupting the cycle of daily readings with readings for memorials. Though, the proper reading for saints who are specifically mentioned in scripture – such as Mary of Magdala –are used.

What does this mean for Mary of Magdala and for the Church?

With some estimates placing the number of saints as high as10,000 it matters that St. Mary of Magdala is now one of only a handful of saints – male or female – who is honored with a Feast. To this writer’s knowledge Mary of Magdala is the only woman saint other than Mary of Nazareth to be honored this way. Feasts are an honor reserved for only the most significant and universally important saints. Celebrating Mary of Magdala with a Feast rightly places her alongside those saints: the evangelists and the apostles.

The only saints to receive the greater honor of a Solemnity are Mary of Nazareth and Joseph, Sts. Peter and Paul, and John the Baptist. Meanwhile, St. Mary of Magdala now outranks most saints including those generally viewed as some of the greats: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St.Clare, St. Catherine of Siena, and even Pope St. Gregory the Great – the first pope to officially propagate the “composite Mary,” which is now rejected by scholars of history and scripture.

In terms of the liturgical elements, perhaps the most important development that comes with this elevation is the introduction of a proper preface specific Mary of Magdala. The preface, appropriately titled de apostolorum apostola, tells the true story of Mary of Magdala, her importance in the Jesus movement, her role in the early Church as apostle to the apostles, and her divinely ordained role in spreading the Good News of Easter:

In the garden He appeared to Mary Magdalene,

who loved him in life, who witnessed his death on the cross,

who sought him as he lay in the tomb,

who was the first to adore him when he rose from the dead,

and whose apostolic duty was honored by the apostles,

so that the good news of life might reach the ends of the earth.

The preface was officially released in Latin along with the decree. Local bishops’ conferences have the duty of translating it into the vernacular. Once approved by the Vatican, these translations will be added to the Roman Missal before its next printing. Previously, the preface in used for the July 22nd celebration of Mary of Magdala had been a generic proper of saints. When coupled with the proper readings for the day – particularly John’s Resurrection account – this new preface holds great potential for reeducating Catholics on Mary of Magdala and dispelling the centuries-long false understanding that she was a prostitute or public sinner.

In a Church that thinks hierarchically and liturgically, there are few steps that the Vatican could have taken that would have as lasting and as broad of an impact as elevating St. Mary of Magdala’s celebration to a Feast does. This elevation says something important about Mary of Magdala and asks Catholics – lay and ordained – to take notice.