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Women’s voices lauded on Magdala feast day


She was the first witness to the Resurrection, the apostle to the apostles, Jesus’ close friend and faithful disciple. But for nearly two millennia Mary of Magdala has been confused with several Marys in scripture or identified as a prostitute -- at best a repentant one. All that is changing in the 21st century.

Across North America and abroad, thousands of women and men commemorated her on her feast day July 22 with music, dance, ceremonies of healing and reflections that emphasized Mary of Magdala’s solidarity with Catholic women who feel called to serve God as ordained deacons and priests.

This year her feast day coincided with the date that the Vatican said it would excommunicate seven women ordained in Austria late last month (NCR, July 19). The women have filed a recursus, or appeal under canon law, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ceremonies to honor Mary of Magdala are also occurring in a year in which the U.S. bishops passed a regulation prohibiting preaching by lay ministers “at the moment reserved for the homily.” The ruling, issued Jan. 15, “effectively silences women’s voices in Sunday worship,” said St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk, executive director of the Cleveland, Ohio-based FutureChurch, which along with the Chicago-headquartered Call to Action coordinated some 200 events planned to honor Mary Magdala.

Organizers said they wanted to reverse a pattern of silencing of female preachers in the Catholic church. “Women’s preaching voice is needed in the church,” Schenk said, adding that 82 percent of all paid Catholic lay ministers are women.

“If the male apostles had silenced Mary of Magdala, we would never have known about the Resurrection of Jesus,” Schenk said. She hoped the bishops would welcome women’s preaching the good news just as the male apostles welcomed Mary’s news.

Members of the Catholic gay and lesbian support group, Dignity, celebrated the feast day in several East Coast cities and Chicago, as well as in California and Hawaii. Michelle DeCoste, a member of Dignity Boston, presided at a lay-led liturgy held July 21 at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Boston.

Homilist Randy Stairs, a member of Dignity Boston, told those assembled that the first century saint challenges today’s Catholics to confront the question of justice within the institutional church -- “justice for women called to ministry and for the community in need of that ministry,” [he] said. “We cannot continue to participate in the centuries-old tradition of ignoring the gifts of God and then blindly asking why there aren’t enough ministers to meet the community’s needs.”

In Kansas City, Mo., where members of Call to Action held their fourth annual celebration of Mary of Magdala at St. Francis Xavier Church July 21, the 100-strong group intoned “The Litany of Women” -- a special prayer to Mary of Magdala -- and performed the Rite of Naming, in which all congregants proclaim how they think God sees them.

Some 200 participants attended a Mary Magdala event at the Motherhouse Chapel of the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati. The service, the third of its kind, drew 18 cosponsors from parishes, spirituality centers, justice and peace offices, women’s groups, religious congregations, the archdiocesan Office of Religious in Cincinnati and the Justice and Peace Office of the Covington, Ky., diocese.

Charity Sr. Louise Akers, who organized the coalition, asked, “How did it happen that we 21st-century Christians have never heard about Mary’s strong discipleship role during Jesus’ life, and her prominent leadership role in the early church?” Akers told NCR that a research paper she presented while in graduate school for her master’s in divinity led to her “ongoing commitment to pursue change and renewal in our patriarchal church.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002 [corrected 08/16/2002]