11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 12, 2016
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
In today’s Gospel we read the beautiful story
of Christ’s forgiveness of the “sinful woman,”
who, if we read carefully, and follow the mind of the early Church,
we find is clearly none other than my favorite saint, Mary Magdalene.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then, at least not in God’s plan,
that this last Friday Pope Francis issued a decree,
elevating the liturgical celebration of St. Mary Magdalene,
from the liturgical rank of “Memorial” to “Feast.”
Now, this might not seem like that big of a deal to most folks, but it is.
Because you see, this raises her celebration to the same level of solemnity
reserved for the feasts of only the most important saints
of the first generation of the Church,
including St. John the Baptist, the Evangelists Mark and Luke,
and the 12 Apostles.
Which means the Church will now officially recognize
what countless saints and doctors have said for centuries:
Mary Magdalene is one of the key figures in the early Church,
and one of the most important saints in the entire life of the Church.
This change also has another related consequence:
she will be the only woman, other than the Blessed Virgin Mary,
to have this liturgical honor.
Which I think is wonderful—as I’ve been preaching for 21 years,
she is such a unique character,
a great sinner, turned great penitent, turned great saint.
which makes her a critical patron for women, and men, of today.
Unfortunately, though, some have already begun to use this
as an occasion to reignite that old tired argument
that the Church is the great oppressor of women,
like Magdalene (they say).
And, from this they say it’s time to end all so-called oppression of women,
and finally break the stained-glass ceiling and ordain women as priests.
The problem, of course, is that it is an infallible doctrine
that women cannot be priests,
and the story of St. Mary Magdalene actually supports that doctrine.
So rather than continue to speak specifically about the Magdalene,
it seems a good time to address the question:
why can’t women be priests?
Some say that the ordination of women involves a question of justice
—the sin of sexism.
But if this is a question of injustice or sin, who is the one doing the injustice,
who is committing the sin?
Scripture tells us that Jesus is the one who personally chose
12 men to be his apostles.
He didn’t name His Mother Mary an apostle.
And he didn’t name the Magdalene an apostle.
Was Jesus guilty of the sin of sexism?
No, Scripture is very clear: Jesus is God, and he was incapable of ever sinning.
Well then perhaps he was unaware that it was a sin.
Because, as St. John makes clear:
“In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.
…all things were made through him.”
In other words, Christ is the creator,
and he understands perfectly what he has made
—and what is good and what is evil.
Some argue that Christ chose only men as his apostles
because he was constrained by the male dominated culture he lived in.
But Scripture is very clear in showing
that Jesus’ behavior was in no way bound by his culture
—especially when it came to women.
For example, Jewish men were never allowed to even talk to a woman in public, unless they were family.
But look at today’s Gospel, the story of Mary Magdalene,
the sinful woman who Jesus not only talks to,
but allows to wash and kiss his feet!
And look how it goes on to say:
“Accompanying [Jesus] were the Twelve
and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities,
Mary, called Magdalene, …Joanna, …Susanna,
and many others ….”
These women travelled with the Lord and his apostles:
which was absolutely unheard of among the Jews in those days.
Over and over again, Jesus acted completely contrary to his culture
when it came to women.
Or was it perhaps the apostles who are to blame for this injustice?
Perhaps they maliciously falsified the role of women in the early Church.
But if that were true, why did they even bother to tell us not only about
Jesus’ counter-cultural attitude toward women,
but also about the dignified role he gave them.
For example, why would sexist apostles tell everyone
that the first person Jesus appeared to after the resurrection
was not, in fact, an apostle,
but a “mere” woman, Mary Magdalene.
Or perhaps the apostles and the early Church just didn’t understand.
But wouldn’t Jesus have explained something as fundamental as this
to the apostles?
And don’t we read that at the Last Supper Jesus promised
to send the Holy Spirit to the apostles to guide them “to all truth.”
If there is something sinful about an all-male priesthood,
doesn’t that imply that for 2000 years
mere men had been more powerful than Holy Spirit
by allowing this sin to go on?
As another objection,
some argue that the only reason the apostles didn’t have women priests
is because they bowed to their Jewish heritage
which prohibited women priests.
But this doesn’t make much sense,
since after the first decade after Christ’s death,
the primary culture the Church operated in wasn’t Jewish,
but Greek and Roman.
And the Greeks and Romans had lots of female priestesses in their religions.
Besides, at the Council of Jerusalem the apostles agreed
not to bind the Gentile converts to what were merely customs of the Jews.
Some take this argument in the other direction.
They rightly point out that St. Paul tells us:
“[In Christ] there is neither Jew nor Greek,
… neither slave nor free, …neither male nor female…”
But, they forget,
this is the same St. Paul who so often upsets modern sensibilities
by his very explicit instructions
on how men and women are to act very differently in assembly, writing:
“women should keep silence in the churches.”
Finally, some argue that, in fact there have been,
women priests in the early centuries of the Church.
But the only clear and substantive evidence of so-called “Christian priestesses”
are ancient documents that are written by either:
heretical groups who had already split off from the Church,
or by orthodox Catholic bishops
condemning those heretical groups who ordained women.
Okay, you say, maybe that’s the way it was,
but isn’t this just a custom that can change,
like so many other things changed after Vatican II?
It’s not like this is an infallible teaching,
and certainly Catholics are free to disagree
without being considered “bad Catholics”!
But in fact this is not a changeable custom: the Church has always taught this:
and so according to Vatican II’s definition of infallibility,
this is an infallible doctrine.
To clarify this, in 1994, Pope St. John Paul II wrote a very short,
but very authoritative, letter, in which he stated in part:
“In order that all doubt may be removed
regarding a matter of great importance,
…which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself…
I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever
to confer priestly ordination on women
and that this judgment is to be definitively held
by all the Church’s faithful.”
And just a year later,
Pope John Paul instructed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
now Pope Emeritus Benedict,
to release an even briefer statement which confirmed:
“This teaching requires definitive assent,
since…it has been set forth infallibly
by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”.
And, of course, Pope Francis, has upheld this, saying just last year:
“[O]n women priests, that cannot be done.
Pope St. John Paul II …said so clearly.”
When Jesus first told his disciples concerning the Eucharist,
“The bread I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world”
–Scripture records that many of his disciples said
“this is a hard saying, who can believe this? …
and “After this many of his disciples …no longer [followed] him.”
I know that to many people this teaching on male ordination
represents a “hard saying.”
But I’m not telling you this to ostracize you.
What I am saying is that this is the truth,
and if you believe that Christ is not a sinner or a liar,
and that he did sent His Holy Spirit to guide his apostles in the truth
and to protect his Church from errors
from the beginning;
then, open your hearts,
and ask the Holy Spirit to help you
to accept and understand and defend this hard truth.
The question shouldn’t be “why won’t the Church ordain women?”
That just won’t get us anywhere:
it’s like asking “why can’t men be mothers?”
Instead, the question should be
–what is God telling us through his revelation
that only men can be priests?
–what is He telling us about the priesthood,
about the Church,
about being male and female?
Now let me suggest a partial answer to those questions.
One of the things we often forget
when we focus on the equality between and women,
is that being equal does not mean being the same.
Think about this:
our bodies are different,
and the way we think, act and feel are different.
In particular, think of the most wonderful thing that men and women do,
together, as equal partners, but so differently.
I’m speaking of course of being a parent:
both men and women are equally parents of their children,
but only a man can be a father,
and only a woman can be a mother
–a mother in heart, mind and body.
And all this is part of God’s plan—it’s the way he made us.
The very first chapter of the first book of the Bible tells us that:
“God created man in his own image, …male and female he created them.
…… God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply….”
By the plan of God, men and women
are fundamentally equal in dignity to each other,
but also fundamentally and dramatically different from each other:
male and female, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
Throughout the Old Testament, God uses these images,
particularly the image of the relationship of husband and wife to explain
that he loves us more than we can imagine.
Over and over again He tells us that He loves us like a husband loves his wife.
And He continues to use this description in the New Testament,
as Jesus calls himself the bridegroom—the husband–in his parables.
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?”
But unlike the Old Testament, now the bridegroom
has come into the world in the flesh:
God has a body.
When you think about it, most of the central mysteries of Christ’s life
involve the mystery of his body:
the incarnation, the Eucharist, the crucifixion,
the resurrection, and his ascension.
And in Jesus, his body is a male body—the body of a bridegroom.
St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church
and gave himself up for her [on the Cross].”
It is on the Cross that Christ is most fully the Bridegroom,
in that he gives himself completely to his Bride,
in soul and body—yes, his male body.
And as he prepares to go to the Cross
by eating the Last Supper with his 12 apostles,
he gives them a piece of bread and solemnly says first:
“This is my body which will be given for you,”
and then: “[you] do this in memory of me.”
The Eucharist is his continuing gift of himself, on the Cross,
uniting Christ and the Church as husband and wife:
the two become one flesh—one body.
And the Church has always believed that when Christ told his apostles:
“do this in memory of me” he was ordaining them
to share in a special way in his priesthood,
so that when he had ascended bodily into heaven,
they could represent him in the flesh to the Church,
to offer His body to her and for her [in the Eucharist].
So, in Christ, to be priest is fundamentally to be bridegroom.
In the priesthood, ordinary sinful men are called to live extraordinary holy lives
by imitating Jesus Christ in every way.
The priesthood can only be truly be what Christ meant it to be
if it is first formed in image of Christ,
the one, who “came to serve not to be served.”
and “gave himself up for” his bride the Church.
As we move now more deeply into the mystery of the Holy Mass
let us pray that we may grow in our knowledge and appreciation of both
this Blessed Sacrament,
and the sacrament that makes it possible: the priesthood.
And let us continue to pray for priests,
that their lives may always be conformed to the life and love
of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom.
And let us pray, through the intercession of the great St. Mary Magdalene,
that all Christians, and all human beings,
may come to understand, honor and cherish
the gifts of both the radical equality and the profound differences
that come from being created in the image of God
as male and female.