Today’s post is a reflection for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, which is this coming Thursday, July 22nd. To find the readings for that day, click here.
Today’s guest contributor is Russ Petrus, the co-director of FutureChurch, a reform organization seeking changes that will provide all Roman Catholics the opportunity to participate fully in Church life and leadership. Prior to his work with FutureChurch, Russ served in parish ministry in Boston and Cleveland. He holds a Master of Divinity from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, completing most of his studies at Weston Jesuit School of Theology.
July 7th was my sixth work-a-versary with FutureChurch, a reform organization seeking changes that will provide all Roman Catholics the opportunity to participate fully in Church life and leadership. Completely unaware of it myself, my husband Daniel shared the Facebook memory, writing, “What a huge change it was in our lives when you moved to this job…” I was flooded with emotion remembering that day. As we approach the July 22nd Feast of Saint Mary of Magdala, I become increasingly aware of the echoes of Mary’s story in my own. And praying with her witness, I find myself – in an entirely new way – entrusted and sent to announce resurrection just as she was some 2,000 years ago.
After years of knowing I was gay, I finally mustered the courage to come out in 2001 when I was a freshman at Canisius College, a Jesuit school, in Buffalo, NY. I leapt into the open arms of the campus ministry team who celebrated me, my gifts, and my relationships. It was during my four years of undergrad that I discerned a call to ministry. I dated and fell in love with Daniel, who is now my husband. Finally living authentically, loving myself, and being loved for who I was, I felt truly alive. And especially so when I was engaged in ministry.
Luke 8:2-3 tells us that, having been healed of seven demons, Mary of Magdala – along with other women – followed Jesus and supported his ministry out of their resources. I wonder: What were the demons that Mary was healed of? We know they weren’t the seven deadly sins (that’s a later invention thrust upon her by Pope Gregory I). But were they the kind of self-doubt, fear of rejection, images of a God who didn’t love her, an internalized misogyny akin to internalized homophobia–issues that we as LGBTQ+ Catholics are also too familiar? Or were they physical ailments, like the physically crippling depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts that too many LGBTQ+ persons bear? And when Jesus healed her, what was that like? Was it as simple as showing her unconditional love and embracing her for who she was and the gifts she had to share?
Alive with my call to ministry, I followed it to Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA, and earned a Master of Divinity, learning everything I could, soaking up God’s love for me – for all of us – just as Mary Magdala had done as she followed Jesus from Galilee.
Whatever her healing looked like, Mary must have felt truly alive after it – embracing herself, following Jesus, loving and being loved by him, learning from him and sharing in his ministry. What else could have compelled her to follow him all the way to the cross, even as the male disciples scattered in fear?
After years of living with integrity, things began to change for me when I started working in diocesan parishes. The honest, authentic life I had once embraced was not welcomed and embraced in my own church. In fact, being authentic became a liability – a threat to my livelihood and everything I had worked and studied so hard for. In this hostile environment, like the men who had followed Jesus, I found myself denying…hiding…betraying. Soon I was back in the closet, coerced there by well-meaning advisors and pastors and by threats from ecclesial authorities. I locked my Facebook page down and carefully curated everything I posted or was posted about me. Daniel and I always lived on the opposite end of town from the parish so no one would accidentally see us out and about together. If someone did run into us on a date, I introduced him as my “friend.”
Over time, my body began revolting, showing serious signs of chronic stress. Two therapists told me I could not keep living this closeted life. Given the stress on both of us, not surprisingly my relationship with Daniel was on rocky ground. Yet, I did not know what else to do. I was still paying for my degree and I couldn’t help but wonder if the previous fourteen years and thousands of dollars had all been for nothing.
The gospels tell us that either alone (Jn 20:1) or with other women (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Lk 23:55 – 24:3) Mary of Magdala sets out to the tomb on that first dangerous Easter morning. What went through her mind as made her way to anoint Jesus’ body? Did she wonder if it had all been for nothing? Did she regret “wasting” her precious resources? Would anointing his body bring her closure? Would she be able to make peace with all that had happened? And upon peering into the empty tomb did she feel confused and afraid not knowing what to do next?
Then it happens – the Risen Jesus reveals himself to her! He entrusts her with the Good News of Resurrection and sends her to proclaim it in his name. And as the faithful follower she has been all along, she goes and announces the news to the apostles. Resurrection! Life had changed – not just for her, but for everyone and for all time.
As I peered into my own dark cave, I finally came to the conclusion that it was time to make a change – whatever that meant. And so, I opened a browser window and began my search for a new form of ministry. And, to my surprise, I found an opening for a full-time Program Director at FutureChurch, an organization dedicated to justice in the church. I applied and was hired! Like Mary of Magdala I couldn’t have known what I’d find as I faced my tomb, but I shouldn’t have been surprised to find God’s love for me even in that desolate place.
Today, I live my life and my ministry as my authentic self. And, with gratitude, I am of reminded what that change meant for me and Daniel: we could – both of us – live and be the people God was loving into being. When marriage equality became the law of the land, we got married. Now, we can live wherever we want to live, and when we are out on a date, I can proudly introduce him as my husband. I’m once again the loud, proud gay Catholic I loved being. Resurrection!
As I strive to live out my calling, I stand in solidarity with others who are struggling — with God, with the Church, with family, with co-workers, or with significant others. I have experienced my own demons, my own weeping at an empty tomb. Yet, gratefully, I know that resurrection wasn’t just for Jesus. He shared it. With Mary of Magdala first, and with all of us –as something to experience, something to proclaim – each day of our lives. So, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Mary of Magdala, I invite those who are suffering at the hands of church leaders to remember Mary of Magdala, pray with her, and to trust in God’s unconditional love and care for you. Resurrection is for you too.
FutureChurch promotes the celebration of the feast of Mary of Magdala in Catholic communities across the country and around the world. To learn more about our resources and opportunities to celebrate Mary of Magdala, click here.
—Russ Petrus, FutureChurch, July 18, 2021