Outside St. Callistus Church, the street hummed with traffic as morning commuters streamed to and from the three-freeway interchange known as the Orange Crush, heading to their workday destinations.
But inside the white-walled church in Garden Grove, Calif., hundreds of Catholics withdrew into a different world — a world of faith instead of flurry; a world in which they could make a direct connection with a saint who walked with Christ.
On March 10, the Southern California parish welcomed a relic of St. Mary Magdalene: a portion of her tibia in a gleaming glass reliquary.
“I thank you for coming this morning to greet the relic I have brought for you from France,” Dominican Father Thomas Michelet said in his homily. “Tradition tells us these are truly relics of Mary Magdalene, and we can venerate them.”
It is not often, he added, that the relics travel away from the cave in which tradition says the saint spent the last 30 years of her life in contemplation and in which the relic was installed in the 19th century. But in the care of the Dominicans, who have guarded the relics since 1295, this one is wrapping up a month-long tour of California at the invitation of the bishops of Los Angeles, Oakland, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Rosa.
The idea of such a tour came up last June, when Paula Lawlor — a Catholic from the Diocese of San Diego — learned from the bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, where the relics reside, that there was a possibility of the relics being brought to California. Newly devoted to the saint, Lawlor was eager to foster devotion in others, so she volunteered to organize a tour.
The first step was contacting each of California’s dozen bishops, asking them to invite the Dominicans to come with the relic.
“You can’t just come in and do this,” Lawlor explained. “You have to have the bishop’s approval.” She also had to obtain the permission of the apostolic nuncio in Paris before the relics could make their long journey. “It’s a big process,” she admitted.
And by the time she had laid all the groundwork — the bishops had sent their invitations, she had cleared the journey with the apostolic nuncio, and the Dominicans had agreed to travel with the relic — she had a little more than two months to put the tour schedule together.
She has been on the road with the relic and its accompanying Dominican (Father François LeHégaret the first two weeks, Father Michelet the second two) for nearly a month, and thousands of California Catholics have venerated the relic.
Lawlor had never had a devotion to Mary Magdalene before she traveled to France in the midst of a family crisis; her troubled second-youngest child had been getting into trouble so deep that his fate rested in the hands of the law, and there was nothing more she could do for him.
While in France, she visited the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene, which was built on the spot where Charles II is said to have discovered the tomb in which Mary Magdalene’s relics had been buried; Lawlor also visited Sainte Baume, the mountain cave where tradition says the saint lived the last 30 years of her life in prayer, about 20 miles from the basilica.
There Lawlor lit a candle and prayed for each of her seven children, but perhaps especially for the second-youngest. The next day, she discovered that her son’s troubles with the law had been resolved, and he was free to move forward with his life if he paid a simple $270 fine.
“His whole life has completely changed since that day,” Lawlor said. “That’s my miracle.”
Mary Magdalene was no stranger to life-changing events, as Father Michelet noted in his homily. At one point, she was possessed by seven demons, and Christ cast them out of her. She stood at the foot of the cross when Christ was crucified on Friday. The following Sunday she went to the tomb to anoint his body but found that the stone had already been rolled away from the mouth of the cave, and the body was no longer inside. It was she who told the apostles the news of the Resurrection.
“She was the first of those who are sent to tell the Gospel,” Father Michelet said, noting that this was how she earned the name of “apostle to the apostles.”
“Take her as an example for your Lenten period,” he suggested, “and Easter, even. Follow her as she followed Christ, as a messenger of mercy.”
Following Mass, all the students of St. Callistus School venerated the relic, touching Mary Magdalene cards to the glass case inside which rested the reliquary containing the sepia-colored bone fragment. After the students made their way back to school, streams of people crowded towards the reliquary to gaze upon the relic and kiss the glass that encloses it.
“It’s very inspiring,” said Ramon Cabrera, a parishioner at nearby St. Norbert in Orange. “It makes you feel like your sins are forgiven by God.”
Lawlor couldn’t ask for a better reaction to her efforts. “You give [people] hope by her presence,” she said. “It really makes a difference.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.