Apostles to the Apostles

By Mike James for the Catholic Standard of Guyana

This last week  on Monday 22 July the Church celebrated the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene. While most liturgical celebrations of individual saints during the year are known formally as memorials, those classified as feasts are reserved for important events in Christian history and for saints of particular significance, such as the Twelve Apostles. Three years ago, Pope Francis took the very significant step of raising the celebration of St. Mary Magdalene to that level of significance given to the Apostles. The word apostle comes from the Greek meaning “One who is sent”

Pope Francis´ decree giving Mary Magdalene his great honour was entitled “The Apostle of the Apostles” in recognition of Mary Magdalene’s role as the very first person to witness Christ’s resurrection and as a “true and authentic evangelizer,”

The extract from St John’s Gospel for last Monday’s liturgy (Ch 20  11-18), gives an extraordinarily moving and vivid account of Mary’s encounter with Jesus and the mission he gave her to proclaim Jesus resurrection to the apostles.

But Mary was standing outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, as she wept, she stooped to look inside ,and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she replied, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’

As she said this she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not realise that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him. ‘Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She turned around then and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’ — which means Master.

Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. ‘So Mary of Magdala told the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and that he had said these things to her.

In the article for the Vatican newspaper, Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, wrote that in celebrating “an evangelist who proclaims the central joyous message of Easter,” St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is a call for all Christians to “reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the new evangelization and the greatness of the mystery of divine mercy.”

“Pope Francis has taken this decision precisely in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy to highlight the relevance of this woman who showed great love for Christ and was much loved by Christ,” Archbishop Roche wrote.

Mary Magdalene, and women in general in the Church have not always received the official recognition they deserve., in Luke´s account of the witnesses to the empty tomb of Mary and the other women. Even the apostles themselves simply refused to believe them.

The women returned from the tomb and told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. And the other women with them also told the apostles, but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them. Peter, however, went off to the tomb, running. He bent down and looked in and saw the linen cloths but nothing else; he then went back home, amazed at what had happened. (Lk 24 9-12)

This unwillingness to believe Mary Magdalen is perhaps not surprising given  that church and civil authorities at the time of Jesus deemed women incompetent to give testimony in any legal forum. By the tenth century AD, Maria Magdalen’s witness and role had been further devalued by the Church’s widely accepted but false belief that she was a prostitute by profession before her conversion. In addition to being recognized by the Church as the Patroness of Women  and repentant sinners she is also the patroness against sexual temptation. Yet there is no biblical evidence linking  Mary Magdalene to the unidentified woman who was accused of adultery or of the other who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears. What is clearly established in all the Gospels, is that Mary Magdalen was one of Jesus´s most faithful disciples to the very end, standing at the foot of the cross with his mother and the very first to witness fearlessly to his resurrection to his male followers who were in fear, doubt and hiding, having abandoned their leader.

Francis has moved  slowly but consistently towards re-establishing  acknowledgement in practice of the leadership role  and witness of women in the church. In appointing seven women to the Vatican congregation that oversees religious orders on July 9, Pope Francis has advanced both the role of women in the church and the reform of the Vatican Curia.

The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), colloquially known as the Congregation for Religious, is responsible for setting policy for Catholic nuns, brothers and consecrated lay people. Acting like a board of directors, members are appointed by the pope for terms of five years to review major policy recommendations before they are approved by the pope.

Most significant is the fact that 6 of the women appointed are heads of religious orders of women, who were  all themselves elected directly by women  members of those congregation, as is the seventh, a woman who is President of a group  Consecrated Lay people.

It is widely felt that their gradual increasing the numbers of women’s playing key decision-making roles in the church will inevitably have an impact on major issues facing the church is its response to the large number of cases of sexual abuse of minors by  mainly male clerics.

Women who are more attuned (and historically encouraged) to appreciate their roles in service  rather than dominance and the exercise of power, may be more willing to promote and commit to the  ideals of Pope Francis of a Servant Church, rather than  the lip service that so many  males give to the calls of Francis and Jesus to selfless service.

It is sometimes noted (in defence of the dominant role of males in the hierarchy of the Church) that there are many cases in the Gospels of Jesus inviting men to become his disciples, but no record of similar invitations to women to follow him. What we do have, however, are numerous references to the role of women who did follow Jesus. Can it be that the women did not need to be invited because they were already there? Would they need to be “invited” to take on more genuine leadership roles in Church of the 21st century? Does today’s church still need to heed the witness of modern-day Apostles to the Apostles?


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