Question: The religious education director at a local New Order church says that Mary Magdalen was one of our Lord's disciples. Further, she says that since the disciples were ordained priests at the Last Supper, it follows that Mary Magdalen was a priest, and that the modern Church could ordain women. Was Mary Magdalen really a disciple, and, if so, how valid is this woman's argument?
Answer: Ambiguity is the soul of Modernism! -- and the word "disciple" can be used in so many ways that it proves nothing more about Mary Magdalene than that she was someone who believed the words of our Lord and tried to conduct her life in accordance with His teaching. The word "disciple" doesn't even have a necessarily religious meaning; one might be a disciple of some accomplished person in virtually any field of endeavor, learning from them and following their direction and example.
In the New Testament, while we find the word "disciple" used to refer to the followers of Moses, the Pharisees, and John the Baptist,1 generally the term refers to the followers of Jesus Christ. Yet even this use of the word is indeterminate. In the broadest case, the disciples are all those who believe and follow the teachings of our Lord.2 This is particularly the case in the Acts of the Apostles.3 The word is used in a somewhat more exclusive way to denote the seventy-two who preceded Jesus when He intended to preach in a particular town.4 These men were sent in pairs, commissioned to heal the sick, expel devils, and generally prepare the crowds for our Lord, but there is no indication that they were in Holy Orders (or that Holy Orders even existed at that time). Given the Jewish culture, it is extremely likely that all were men.
The most exclusive group of disciples were those men we call Apostles. Sometimes they are called "the twelve disciples"5 -- or, after the treachery of Judas, "the eleven"6 -- sometime just "His disciples."7 That these "disciples," the Apostles, were ordained priests at the Last Supper, has no bearing on whether or not any of the other "disciples" were in Orders.
Mary Magdalen , of course, fits into the more general category of "disciples," the men and women who believed our Lord's word and tried to put it into practice in their lives. Yet, within this category, she is undoubtedly special. Her background most likely made her a more forceful woman than many of her peers. She was strong enough to stand with our Lord's Mother and Saint John at the foot of the Cross, to take the body to the tomb, and to return later to see to the anointing of our Lord's body. It was Mary Magdalen who went to Peter and the others to inform him of our Lord's resurrection. In this connection, Saint Augustine refers to her as the "apostle to the Apostles" -- that is as the "messenger appointed" by our Lord to bring the good news to Peter and the others (there is no hint of sharing in the Apostolic Priesthood).8
If -- together with Pope Saint Gregory the Great and others -- we accept the idea that Mary Magdalenn and Mary of Bethany are the same woman, and if we accept French legend, we can also see a similar sort of "apostolic" behavior in the conversion of Provence to the Faith by Mary and Lazarus. But it is the latter and not the former who is said to have been the first Bishop of Marseilles.9
Mary Magdalen was certainly an unusual woman, greatly to be admired in her search for the Truth, her conversion of heart, her devotion to Jesus and Mary, and to the Catholic Faith. We can gain a great deal from her example -- but we ought to steer far clear of all the "screw-ball" causes that have attempted to appropriate her for their own -- whether they be women's ordination, the preaching of the "Gnostic Gospels," or any of the other foolishness one can find easily on the Net.