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Groups promote Mary of Magdala, women’s roles

NCR Staff

Each year as Easter approaches, Sr. Chris Schenk’s thoughts turn to Mary of Magdala, her patron. Though pegged as a prostitute, Mary of Magdala is named in all four gospels as first witness to the resurrection.

To Schenk, Mary’s fate - to be wrongly cast as temptress rather than as the “apostle to the apostles” that she was - parallels the fate of women in Christian tradition generally. Schenk points out that no evidence can be found in the Bible that Mary was either a prostitute or a public sinner. Rather, New Testament passages referring to at least three other women, two of them named Mary, get intertwined with those about Mary of Magdala. The other women are Mary of Bethany, Mary with the alabaster jar and the unnamed sinner who washes Jesus’ feet in the Gospel of Luke. Scripture scholars say the confusion, perhaps deliberate, began in early Christian centuries when male leaders in the church were trying to suppress female leadership.

Schenk learned about efforts to recover the truth about Mary of Magdala when she was doing graduate work for a theology degree.

As a way of setting the record straight and affirming female leadership, Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, in conjunction with Call to Action, is promoting services to honor Mary of Magdala on or near her feast day, July 22. Some 124 services have been held in the past two years, involving an estimated 2,500 people. Another 200 are being planned in parishes, homes and halls for this July. The services, using resources provided by FutureChurch headquarters in Cleveland, often highlight women in liturgical roles and draw on contemporary biblical scholarship about the strong woman disciple that Mary was. “So much biblical scholarship in the past 20 years has made Jesus’ radically inclusive behavior with women better known,” Schenk said. “Most women, when they hear about Jesus and his disciples, think Jesus and 12 men were running around Galilee, when in fact women were among his closest followers.”

Anyone who knows FutureChurch or Call to Action also knows, though, that both groups see scholarship and feast-day celebrations as means rather than end.

Beyond promoting women in leadership today lies full realization of a distant goal: access to the priesthood for all the baptized who experience a call, regardless of gender or state in life. That is FutureChurch’s agenda. Presently, as Schenk sees it, Vatican officials put their insistence on a male celibate priesthood ahead of sacramental needs at a time when the shortage of priests in Western nations is increasingly acute.

“We support the celibate charism, but we also know the depth of the call to married men and to women,” Schenk said. In other words, rather than either-or why not both-and as a way of providing the Eucharist every Sunday for all baptized Catholics.

The July 22 celebrations, intended as an interim step, are linked to the “benchmarks” project of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The conference in the mid-1990s offered 15 concrete proposals for advancing women in leadership roles, without dealing with the ordination question. Schenk points out that the vast majority of all paid church ministers are women, according to recent studies, yet a small minority hold top diocesan positions.

Schenk’s feelings about Mary of Magdala are directly linked to her decision to work for FutureChurch. Schenk, a sister of St. Joseph, was working as a midwife in Cleveland when she was invited to take on the executive director’s role. She had been studying theology at the time, around 1994, and had been outraged, she said, to learn “that a woman who had been one of Jesus’ most courageous apostles had been turned into a prostitute.”

On the day that her passion and her future work united, Schenk was on retreat, walking along a country road struggling to reach a decision about the proposed new role. “I was thinking about the things that were stopping me from saying yes, and I realized it was mostly just a tremendous sense of despair that anything would make a dent” in the church’s sexism. “It seemed so hopeless,” she said, adding that her anger brought tears.

“I talked this over with God and then I found myself getting real quiet inside. I heard a little voice saying, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ which was, of course, what Jesus had said to Mary Magdalene in the garden.”

That experience led her “to look at the other side, at the crucifixion that women experience, the crucifixion of sexism,” and then to look at it with the eyes of faith. “I realized at that moment that all the sexism in the world is not as strong as Jesus’ resurrection power to heal and overcome it.”

“That was the inner grace I needed,” she said. “It gave me the faith to take the next step.”

And the next and the next.

“We’re happy with the effort,” she said of the Mary of Magdala events. “It has found a home among people who love the church and who want to do what they can to make the vision of Jesus more complete.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000