St. Mary Magdalene is often, at least in the Western tradition, connected with the “sinful woman” of Luke 7:36-50. Though she is not named in these verses, St. Luke immediately follows the sinful woman’s conversion story with a list of the women who accompanied the Lord. Among these women is “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons came out” (Luke 8:2).
Following the Latin tradition, St. Thomas offers to us several interesting aspects of the conversion of St. Mary Magdalene. His words will help us to understand her conversion within the broader context of the spiritual life.
In every case of conversion, several elements are present:
1) The (often hidden) movement of grace which disposes the sinner for conversion.
2) Actual contrition: sorrow for sin, purpose of amendment, and the desire to make satisfaction for sin through penance.
3) Absolution and restoration to grace.
Of course, all these elements are present in the conversion of St. Mary Magdalene, with a special emphasis on the aspect contrition and the relation this has to forgiveness and the restoration to grace. This specific focus is manifest in our Savior’s words in Luke 7:47, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.”
The Magdalene's contrition
Though the fact of St. Mary Magdalene’s conversion may not itself be as miraculous or extra-ordinary as that of other saints (like for example St. Paul’s), the quality of her contrition and the corresponding perfection of her conversion far excels nearly every other conversion story. St. Thomas mentions this on two occasions in the Summa Theologiae.
First, when discussing whether the remnants of sin are removed when a mortal sin is forgiven – that is, whether there is any propensity for sin or tendency toward sin left after conversion and forgiveness – St. Thomas answers that usually there is, we still find ourselves falling into the same old sins again and again because the “bad habits” remain even after the sin has been forgiven. However, this is not always the case, sometimes, because of the great quality of the penitents contrition, by the grace of Christ, even the tendency toward certain sins will be removed. This, St. Thomas offers, occurred in the case of St. Mary Magdalene (ST III, q.86, a.5, ad 1)
In another place, St. Thomas questions whether, after penance, a man rises again to equal virtue – in other words, Are we restored to the same height after a fall as we were before? Again he answers that we are not often restored to the same spiritual height immediately, but only again after much work and waiting. Yet again there are certain exceptions to this rule – and one of these is St. Mary Magdalene! Because of her great contrition for her past sins, she was raised to even higher virtue than she had ever attained before. (ST III, q.89, a.2, ad 3).
Finally, we note the words of two great Doctors’ of the Church on the conversion of St. Mary Magdalene (recorded by St. Thomas in the Catena Aurea):
Gregory the Great, “She converts the number of here faults into the same number of virtues, that as much of her might wholly serve God in her penitence, as had despised God in her sin.”
Chrysostom in the Catena, “Thus the harlot became then more honorable than the virgins.”