Only a short drive from Tiberias is an excavation site where the ancient town of Magdala once stood. This small site hidden within a vast, enthralling land will always intrigue the faithful because it was of course the hometown of Mary of Magdala, the woman whom Jesus defended and forgave and who followed him faithfully thereafter.
Aside from the fascinating historical significance of this archaeological project, an exceptional feminine ethos has been cultivated. On the site of Magdala is a beautiful new church, named “Duc in Altum”, with an altar shaped like a fishing boat which overlooks the sparkling Sea of Galilee. As I walked inside yesterday, a Mexican priest from the Legionaries of Christ, Fr Juan, who led us round the site of Magdala, told me that I was probably one of the first British people to enter the new church, which will be dedicated on Wednesday. Inside stands a tabernacle which Pope Francis will bless when he visits the Holy Land this week.
The entrance hall is encircled by eight pillars with a baptismal font in the centre, representing the “womb of the church”, and above them are engraved words from John Paul II’s 1995 “Letter to Women”: “The church wants to thank the blessed trinity for the mystery of woman for all and each one of them, for their eternal dignity and for the great deeds performed by God in human history through women.” The ceiling is adorned with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Each pillar displays the name of different women from the Bible, including of course Mary of Magdala, but also the sisters Martha and Mary and even Simon of Cyrene’s mother-in-law. As Father Juan explained how each pillar bears a heroic woman’s name he pointed at the eighth one, which was blank. “Can you tell me who this pillar is for Madeleine?” he asked. I couldn’t.
“This. This one’s for you,” he told me. “And it stands here for you and for the women in the Church.”