According to the Gospel, the first person to encounter the risen Christ is the female disciple Mary of Magdala, also known as Mary Magdalene. John recounts the amazing story in the Gospel passage proclaimed at Easter Sunday Mass: “On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb” (Jn 20:1).
Nothing in the Gospel occurs by mere chance. It is highly significant that in a society where men wielded power in almost every aspect of life, Christ chose a woman to be the first to see him after his resurrection and to announce the news to his apostles.
Christ chose a woman to be the first to see him after his resurrection and to announce the news to his apostles.
Underscoring this significance, three years ago Pope Francis elevated the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, traditionally observed on July 22, to the status of a feast day. In this way, the pope accorded a dignity to the liturgical celebration of St. Mary Magdalene similar to that of the apostles, who are each celebrated as feasts. (The church has a hierarchy of celebrations from memorials to feasts to solemnities.) This recognition was long overdue to a woman famously called the “apostle of the apostles” by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Pope Francis’ act demonstrated the church’s respect for the dignity of women. Women make up a large majority of volunteers, catechists, religious educators, faith formation leaders, sacristans and others who do so much for our church, and Mary Magdalene is most qualified to be an example and a source of inspiration to them. In Mary’s life, we glimpse “the greatness of the mystery of mercy,” as Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, mentions in his explanation of the pope’s decision.
In the last few years, there has been much talk about how to better appreciate the gifts that women bring to the church and how to better integrate feminine presence in the church’s decision-making processes. Pope Francis frequently reminds us that the church is “feminine” and has repeatedly called for a more robust theology of women.
Given these conversations, the time is right to further elevate the feast of St. Mary Magdalene to a solemnity. It would accord this great woman equal dignity with the nativity of John the Baptist, which is liturgically observed as a solemnity. This would be a good way to recognize both John and Mary as pivotal players in announcing the good news of salvation: the former announcing the Lamb of God to the world and the latter announcing the resurrection to the frightened Apostles.
The time is right to further elevate the feast of St. Mary Magdalene to a solemnity, to accord this great woman equal dignity with the nativity of John the Baptist.
A solemnity of St. Mary Magdalene would also provide an extra measure of encouragement to all those women working in the church’s ministry to those at the peripheries of society.
Elevating the celebration of Mary Magdalene to the rank of a solemnity—making her the only woman thus celebrated in the General Roman Calendar apart from Mary, the mother of Jesus—could be a watershed event in the pope’s efforts to highlight the invaluable role played by women in the life and mission of the church. Now is the time for Catholic parishes and schools to devote more time and resources to educate us about St. Mary Magdalene and why she matters in God’s dramatic designs for the world’s salvation in and through Christ.
Correction, July 17: The headline of this article previously misspelled “Magdalene.”