Monday, April 01, 2002

Mary Magdelene a priestess?

Easter Monday today. For Catholics and some other Christian churches and communities, today is the continuation of the Easter celebration begun yesterday.

After speaking with my parents last night, I'm glad that I have my own parish and that I'm not where my parents are. Our Easter Vigil was very well done... our priest is very devout and prayerful during Mass, and we have a nice choir.

On the other hand, my parents went to their parish for Easter Sunday Mass and were treated to a homily in which the well-intentioned-but-misguided priest made an argument (again) for priestesses. It goes like this: after His resurrection Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, and instructed her to tell the Apostles that He was risen. Thus, Mary was the first preacher of the resurrection, and therefore was a priest(ess). Therefore, if Jesus "ordained" Mary as a priest(ess), the Church today is wrong to forbid women's ordination.

I've heard this one before, and a few years back (Friday of Easter Week during the Jubilee, to be precise) I wrote a brief reflection-rebuttal of it, which it is apparently time to trot out again...

I hope everyone is having a blessed Easter Week. The gospel readings from this past weekend provide an opportunity to address a controversial topic among Catholics today in western countries.

In all 4 gospels, Mary Magdalene is sent to the Apostles to tell them of the news that Chris is risen from the dead. As John Paul II writes in his Apostolic Letter "On the Dignity & Vocation of Women" n. 16, "she came to be called 'the apostle of the Apostles.' Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness of the Risen Christ, and for this reason she was also the first to bear witness to him before the Apostles." The Holy Father speaks similarly in his catechesis on the apparitions of the Risen Christ: "It is significant that Jesus appeared first to the women, his faithful followers, before appearing to the disciples and even to the apostles whom he had chosen to preach his Gospel to the world. It was to the women that he first disclosed the mystery of his resurrection. They were the first witnesses to this truth."

From the Gospel texts and the interpretation given by John Paul, we see Mary Magdalene and the other women sent to bear witness. This fact has many implications. I'd like to focus on two of them, one being what this fact does not mean, and the other being what it does mean.

First, that Mary Magdalene and other women were sent to bring the glad tidings of the Risen Christ to the Twelve does not mean that Mary and the others were ordained priests. Unfortunately, this is a view that many good people have, but it does not reflect an entirely accurate concept of priesthood in the New Covenant.

As many of you know, there are two orders of priesthood in the Catholic Church: the ministerial priesthood and the royal priesthood, or priesthood of the faithful. The members of the first are those we commonly refer to as priests (including deacons and bishops). The second includes all the baptized. I'll treat the second later on. Right now, I'm focusing on the first, since it is to this group that Mary and the women are claimed to have belonged to.

What is the role of the ministerial priesthood in the Church? In Vatican II's Decree on the Life & Ministry of Priests, the second chapter outlines the functions of the priesthood: the priest acts as minister of God's Word; as minister of the sacraments and the Eucharist; and as ruler of God's people. While it is certainly true that in some sense Mary Magdalene was a minister of God's Word when she brought the news of the Risen Christ to the Apostles, she did not minister the sacraments or the Eucharist, or rule (by service) God's people. That Mary did not belong to the ministerial priesthood is further confirmed by the fact that she was not present in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday. This is very significant for this issue, in that it is Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper, the first Mass, that is traditionally celebrated as the institution of the ministerial or ordained priesthood. Yet we know from Scripture that only the Twelve Apostles were present at this event; Mary was not. Nor does any text of Scripture speak of Mary ever presiding at the Eucharist. Thus, from Scripture itself, it appears that Mary did not belong to the ordained priesthood.

Yet she certainly belonged to the royal (common) priesthood. It is to this that I would now like to turn. It has been a part of Christian teaching from the very beginning that every baptized person is baptized into Christ, and into his status as priest, prophet, and king. That is, we are all in some way priests, prophets, and rulers. Unfortunately, there is a good deal of ignorance among many Catholic laypeople regarding their personal state as priest, prophet, and ruler. Vatican II sought to recall this great truth of the faith (e.g. the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Chapter IV and the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People), and it is found again in the Catechism, for example in paragraphs 897-913. Paragraph 904 quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who said, "To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." Paragraph 905 begins, "Lay people also fulfill their prophetic mission by evangelization, 'that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life.'"

Focusing specifically on the Resurrection, we return to John Paul's catechesis on Jesus: Son & Savior, wherein the Pope teaches that "Every Christian, in every age and place, is a witness to the risen Christ. [...] The obligation to paschal witness undoubtedly implies for the Christian a great dignity, but also a grave responsibility." Thus, while Mary's mission to the Apostles does not constitute her as an ordained priest, it certainly indicates the grave importance of her prophetic mission as a member of Christ's royal priesthood, and thereby indicates the importance of our status as priest, prophet, and ruler in Christ.

There is an unfortunate tendency today in that what it is to be a lay person, or a priest, or a nun, sister, monk, or brother is not really known, and consequently the roles proper to each are often confused. Such a tendency requires prayer and work on all our parts to educate ourselves and our loved ones about each of the various states of life in the Church, and to live according to our own state. Such education and action is necessary for the healing of various rifts within Catholicism in the West.

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