What he’s done this time won’t make the kind of headlines he got by trading in the papal limousine, but it’s far more important for the Church.
Before we talk about his decision, I need to say a few words about the liturgical calendar that governs each day of the year. That calendar tells us what prayers and readings we use at Mass, what saints we honour on a given day, and how a particular Mass is celebrated.
For instance, today is Sunday, a more important day for the Church than a weekday, so the calendar tells us to pray the Gloria and the Creed, which we don’t do on ordinary days.
With regard to the saints, the Church decides on their relative importance and ranks their liturgical celebrations. First there is a solemnity—the highest rank, reserved for such saints at the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, and the great apostles Peter and Paul. We say the Gloria and the Creed on these days, use an extra reading, and offer Mass with extra outward solemnity.
Then comes the feast. The apostles are all remembered with feasts. We say the Gloria but not the Creed. There’s only two readings, but they are specially chosen and prescribed for the saint.
Finally, there’s a feast day—notice we still use that expression even when we’re talking about days that are not feasts, but that’s just from habit—called a memorial. There’s a special prayer, but the special readings are optional; there’s often not a lot of difference between a memorial and an ordinary weekday Mass.
Now why have I told you all these rather technical things? Who but the priests and the sacristans really need to know about them?
Here’s the answer: without this background you won’t appreciate what Pope Francis did last week.
The Pope raised the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene to the dignity of a liturgical feast.
Even with my long-winded explanation of the Church calendar, that might not mean much to you. But consider this: Mary Magdalene now has the same grade of feast given to the apostles. She becomes the first woman other than the Blessed Virgin to be celebrated with a liturgical feast.
In case we miss the significance of this for the Church today, the Vatican’s statement recalled that St. Thomas Aquinas called Mary Magdalene the “Apostle of the Apostles” since she announced the Resurrection to them. They then announced it to the whole world.
The statement says that St. Mary Magdalene is “an example of true and authentic evangelization; she is an evangelist who announces the joyful central message of Easter,”
In particular, the decision “shines a light on the special mission of this woman, who is an example and model for every woman in the Church.”
Even if you stayed with me through all the details of solemnities, feasts and memorials, you might still be scratching your head. Why all this fuss about the public sinner who washed the feet of Jesus in the Gospel story we’ve just heard this morning?
The answer to that takes us deep into Church history and biblical scholarship—because there is no proof that Mary Magdalene is the woman at the house of the Pharisee. On the contrary, why does today’s Gospel name her at the end, without telling her she was the woman in the preceding story?
Luke does not name the woman who washes the feet of Jesus but introduces Mary Magdalene as someone new when he tells us about the women who accompanied Jesus on his evangelizing journey. Scholars say that the seven demons that had possessed Mary can “indicate no more than a very serious illness.” (JBC, 44:77)
What we do know about Mary is clear. She stood with the Blessed Virgin Mary beside the cross on which Jesus died. She went with others to anoint his body for burial
And, most important of all, there’s no confusion who it was that met Jesus at the tomb on Easter morning. St. John gives us her name, and tells us that Jesus sent her—the first missionary—to tell the apostles that he was alive.
The first proclamation of the Resurrection came from Mary’s lips: “I have seen the Lord.”
Despite all that we know from the Gospels, for many centuries Mary of Magdala has been identified with other women named Mary. St. Gregory the Great and other Fathers of the Church thought that Mary of Bethany—the sister of Martha and of Lazarus—was the same person as Mary Magdalene.
Picking up from these early commentators, Mary Magdalene appears in Christian art as the model of the repentant sinner—adding fuel to the popular idea that she was the woman in today’s Gospel. When I was in Spain last month I saw a special exhibition of the work of the seventeenth-century French artist Georges de la Tour, who painted at least five versions of a penitent Mary sitting before a smoking candle and surrounded by symbols of penance.
In the popular imagination, then, Mary Magdalene became a model of sorrow and penance rather than of action and evangelization.
That may have reflected some of the past thinking about a woman’s role in the Church, depriving all of us—and women in particular, of the full richness of Mary’s example.
The Jesuit writer Father James Martin, points this out in his response to the announcement of the new feast. He says “It reminds us of the supreme importance of women in Jesus’s ministry, and in the Church’s ministry today.
“In fact, between the time she encountered Christ at the tomb and when she proclaimed his Resurrection to them, Mary Magdalene was the Church on earth because only she understood the full meaning of Jesus’s ministry.”
But today’s Gospel reminds us that Mary’s mission didn’t begin on Easter. She was a disciple and collaborator of Jesus during his earthly ministry, travelling with him as he proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom. Indeed, with other women, she helped with the inevitable costs of feeding and housing the Lord and the apostles.
The last word goes to the Secretary, or number two official, at the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Archbishop Arthur Roche. He writes that the new feast means we “should reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the New Evangelization, and the greatness of the mystery of Divine Mercy.”
That’s exactly what the Gospel invites us to do today. And it’s why, once again, Pope Francis has surprised the Church with something new.