The Magdala Project

By Beverly Behan

Mary Magdalene holds a special place in the hearts of many young Catholic women.  We are inspired by her strength and compassion - standing at the foot of the cross and witnessing His torment and refusing to leave Him until His last breath on earth.  We are in awe of how she is not chained by her stained past and are captivated by the mystery that shrouds her. We relish her tenacity in following Joseph of Arimathea to the sepulcher; Mary Magdalene was a determined woman with a plan – to return with spices and oils two days later and give her Lord a proper burial.

But her plan was about to go sideways.  As she headed out that Sunday morning in the darkness, Mary Magdalene could never have imagined what she was about to find when she arrived at the tomb.  Pope Francis alluded to her story in his first Easter Vigil homily as pope, noting that Mary and her companions find “something which upsets their hearts and their plans, something which will upset their whole lives.” The Pope uses her story to illustrate that “God is the God of surprises.”  

One of God’s surprises occurred in the home town of Mary Magdalene just five years ago.  A routine archeological salvage dig at Migdal, Israel, unearthed a first century synagogue.  The God of surprises had other plans for the Catholic priest who’d bought the land at Migdal and hoped to build a spiritual retreat center at the site.  He now found himself overseeing a project with far greater religious and historical significance than anything he’d envisioned...it’s been called one of the most important discoveries in biblical archeology in the past 50 years. 

No synagogue dating from the time of Jesus had ever been found in the Galilee before this, in spite of gospel references such as “He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee preaching and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39). There’s little doubt that Jesus taught in the Magdala synagogue.  It’s also likely that Mary Magdalen heard him preaching there. This may even be the place where he “cast out her seven demons”. 

When Rachel Leach heard about Magdala and realized that there were opportunities for volunteers to participate in this exciting discovery, she knew in her heart that God was calling her to this holy place.  A young Catholic woman from Colorado, Rachel had been teaching in El Salvador for four years.  “From the moment I heard about Magdala, I just knew that I had to go there,” she explains.  Despite her parents’ initial concerns - “They were more nervous about me going to Israel than living in El Salvador”– they gave Rachel their full support as she boarded her flight to Ben Gurion. 

“I can’t even count the many deeply spiritual experiences I had while volunteering at Magdala,” Rachel recalls. “From spending a night in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to shepherding flocks on our Gospel Farm at Magdala to daily meditations on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Almost every experience in the Holy Land can speak of Jesus!” 

Yet amidst all of these, God had another surprise for Rachel: A handsome man from Mexico who was also volunteering at the archeological dig at Magdala; he planned to travel to Italy thereafter for a post-graduate diploma in world religions.  As both had been teachers serving abroad, Rachel and Carlos quickly found common ground in a shared understanding of the experience of living in different cultures.  Their “first dates” consisted of folding sheets, preparing masses and working on the archeological excavation which allowed their friendship to grow and deepen as they spent time working together in the very place where Jesus walked, preached and lived.

Carlos arranged a special mass when the pair revisited El Salvador to be said and surrounded by friends, he pulled Rachel up in front of the altar, dropped to one knee and proposed. They were married in Magdala a year later and currently serve as Volunteer Coordinators for the Magdala program.  “Magdala gave us so much, including each other,” Rachel notes, adding, “We are intent on following God’s will for us and we want to serve Him at Magdala in thanks for the great gifts and graces He has given us.  We don’t have a concrete plan for our future, other than continuing to seek and follow His will, certain that He will not disappoint us!” In other words, Rachel and Carlos are prepared to be surprised.

The archeological park officially opened in 2014 and there are still many acres to explore. There’s plenty to be done in preserving the treasures being found at Magdala and in developing the site to welcome visitors from around the world. If you visit, we can’t promise that, like Rachel, you’ll meet your own Indiana Jones, but we do promise that Magdala will surprise and inspire you while broadening your understanding of the world Jesus lived in 2000 years ago and the prosperous town that Mary Magdalene called home.

Beyond its historical significance, Magdala intends to honor women.  The Women’s Atrium, constructed last year at Magdala, bears this inscription: “In this holy place, the church gives thanks for the feminine genius of women, for their eternal dignity and for the great works God has done through them throughout history for humanity.” The Magdalena Institute will also become an international hub to discuss women’s issues. 

Interested in visiting? Visit www.magdala.org for more information and keep an ear open as theYoungCatholicWoman and Magdala grow in relationship.

Every saint has a past, right? And in this case, Magdalene's is being unearthed in dirt, sand, sweat, and tears. It's time to look forward to the future, though, and we want you to come along...