Pope Francis was referring, of course, to Mary Magdalene, who has often wrongly been portrayed in the annals of Church history and religious art as a prostitute or ‘fallen woman’ despite the fact that no such evidence appears in the Gospels.
What Luke’s gospel does tell us is that she was one of a group of women who supported and accompanied Jesus as he went through the cities and villages proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. It also notes that she had been cured of ‘seven demons’ but no further detail is given. John’s gospel informs us that Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross alongside Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the time of the crucifixion while, apart from John, the male disciples were notable by their absence!
All four gospels relate how Mary Magdalene was one of the women who, on the first day of the week, went to the tomb where Jesus had been laid with the intention of anointing his body with spices. And three of the four evangelists note that she went with joy to tell the apostles that the Lord had risen.
In the Church’s liturgy saints are celebrated at various degrees of solemnity, graduating from ‘optional memorial’ to ‘memorial’ to ‘feast’ to ‘solemnity’.
Before 2017, Mary Magdalene’s feast day on July 22 was celebrated at the level of a ‘memorial’. This meant that during Masses celebrated on that day the Collect (opening prayer), prayer over the gifts of bread and wine and the prayer after Communion all mentioned her.
However, in June 2016 at the instigation of Pope Francis, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (one of the Vatican offices) issued a decree elevating Mary Magdalene’s feast to the rank of ‘feast’ and Mary’s title to ‘apostle’. This means that she is now honoured at the same level as the other apostles, and at the Mass celebrated on her feast day the Glory to God is sung or said, there are readings specific to the feast, and a special preface introduces the Eucharistic Prayer.
This year, July 22 falls on a Sunday and with the approval of Bishop Greg O’Kelly, the Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese, all parishes will celebrate the feast of Mary Magdalene, apostle, rather than the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time. We will have the chance to honour Mary Magdalene as the person that she truly was – a prominent leader in the early Church – and to reflect on the example of women who remained fearless and faithful to Jesus during his earthly ministry, at the time of his passion and death, and following his resurrection. Without the voice of this particular woman, the fact of Jesus’ resurrection might never have been revealed.
Catholic Worship Book II includes a hymn entitled, By all your saints still striving that provides a verse dedicated specifically to Mary Magdalene. One of the tunes that can accompany this hymn is the well-known St Theoldulph, which we would recognise as the tune to All glory praise and honour. Since Mary Magdalene accompanied Christ in both his passion and his glory this would be a most appropriate tune to use for this hymn.
Let all of us strive to be true disciples of Christ as Mary Magdalene was, to be faithful to him in good times and in bad, and to proclaim his Good News by the way we live our lives.
Jenny O’Brien is liturgy educator, Archbishop’s Office for Worship and Diocesan Events
Painting of St Mary Magdalene in the Orthodox Church bearing her name at St Leonards on Sea, Hastings, England.
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