Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Are We Sure There Were No Women Apostles?

I was going to do an entry today on evangelical Catholicism and its ramifications for the migration crisis playing out on our Southern borders, but given that today is the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, I want to go in a somewhat different direction and will do the evangelical Catholic/migration posting tomorrow. And then back to Elizabeth I and the English Reformation.
The priest said something interesting at Mass today (for a change) and it reminded me of the ancient Tradition of Mary Magdalene being the Apostola Apostolorum: the Apostle of the Apostles.  In John’s Gospel, the author never refers to anyone as an “Apostle”—a term used only by the synoptics.    But John does—once—use the verb ɑποστολέίν (apostolein) which is usually translated in English as “go and tell,” the commission given in the gospels to the Apostles by Jesus when he sent them out to announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to all nations and baptize them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.   And John uses this same verb in the commission of Christ to Mary Magdalene to “go and tell” the others that she has seen the Risen Christ.  By the way, this commission to be a witness to the Risen Christ is precisely what St. Paul argues makes him an apostle even though he had not be commissioned with the other apostles before the Ascension.   
This leads to an ancient tradition whereby Mary was called the Apostle to the Apostles, a tradition going back at least as far as Hippolytus in the 3rd century and embraced by such luminaries as Abbot Hugh of Cluny and Doctor and Father of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  This tradition was maintained up through the end of the Middle Ages and survived in the liturgical texts until the early modern era whereby the feast of Mary Magdalene was celebrated as the Feast of an Apostle: with red vestments and the Gloria and Creed being recited as done on the feast of an apostle.  The Creed was dropped as recently as 1945 in a round of liturgical reforms by Pius XII.  Eventually this theme of Mary Magdalene being an Apostle was backed away from in favor of her being a “penitent,” the implications of a female apostle having serious theological implications. Yes, we all understand those serious theological implications, don't we?   The 1970 Missal dropped “penitent” and unfortunately made this very significant saint a mere memorial as if the first witness of the Resurrection were no more than some pious Reverend Mother from Poland or a Spanish Spinster. 
With the discussion of the ordination of women the idea of a female Apostle becomes a somewhat hot potato.  It surprises many to know that this argument is not new to the Vatican II generation.  There were sects in primitive Christianity such as the Montanists and the Collrydians who ordained women to the office of presbyter (priest) and even episcopus (bishop).  These communities were not in communion with “The Great Church”—the historic Christian communion in which both Orthodoxy and Catholicism have their roots.  There is no clear evidence of admitting women to the Orders of Priest or Bishop in the Great Church, though there were women deacons.  One of the factors that drew some to the Montanists, the Collrydians, and other groups that ordained women was the opportunity for women to enter these ministries.  In the medieval period there are not infrequent instances in which Abbesses, by virtue of their Abbatial Blessing, presumed to celebrate Mass or administer other sacraments, especially hearing the confession of their nuns.  After Lateran IV in 1215, when discovered, this usurpation of priestly ministry always met with strong censure from ecclesial authorities and with the removal of the errant Abbess.  During the Protestant Reformation most Conservative (Lutheran) and Moderate (Calvinist) reformers maintained an all-male clergy, but various (though far from all) Anabaptist groups and other radical reformers admitted women to full ministerial positions.  The Catholic Church did not but also lost members who favored women to these groups. 
A curiosity among the lives of the saints in the modern era is that of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, now a Doctor of the Church, who wrote in her autobiography that she felt called to the priesthood.  She was never ordained, of course, but what is so peculiar is that it never seems to have entered her mind that—because she was a woman—she was not eligible for ordination.  Another voice who, though she did not feel called herself to be ordained, argued that there was no serious reason against women being ordained, is Saint Edith Stein, a Jewish convert from agnosticism who became a Carmelite nun and ended her life at Auschwitz.  At the end of the nineteenth century the Church banned pictures and statutes of the Blessed Virgin dressed in priestly vestments to end a rising popular devotion to “Blessed Mary, the Priest.”   Indeed the "priesthood" of the Blessed Mother was a frequent theme of sermons and popular piety at various times in the Church's history, not just the 1800's.   It is an example of what can go awry when devotions get too far from scripture or Tradition.  
I don’t want to be misunderstood as arguing for women’s ordination, but am only stating that women in the apostolic ministry is anything but a new controversy and we can see why the image of Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles is a bit loaded politically.  Nevertheless, I did notice this morning that the priest, while he did not use the Creed as one does on the feast of an apostle, did use the preface of Apostles for the Mass.  Good for him.  It gave the Apostola Apostolorum the honor she deserves. 


  1. Juliana Boerio-GoatesJuly 22, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    Thanks for the interesting details about how the liturgical celebration of this feast day has evolved. Where could I go to read more about the reforms, particularly with respect to Mary Magdalene?

  2. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you--sometimes I need the weekend to catch up. A good place to begin with any Catholic topic is the New Catholic Encyclopedia, either the 2nd edition (1967) or the 3rd edition (2002). (The original edition, 1907, the one available on the internet with New Advent, is way out of date scholarship wise and so unreliable as to be all but useless.) You might want to look at the Jerome Biblical Commentary article on the Gospel of John for the verb apostolein. You might find something in the classic works on the Liturgy--Jungmann's Mass of the Roman Rite and Dix's Shape of the Liturgy. I am reluctant to recommend any feminist authors on this particular topic only because of the bias against them would argue against their objectivity. Depending on the particular author there may be some reason for caution. You would probably have your best luck consulting your research librarian and have him/her check apostola apostolorum or articles on the medieval saints' feasts.