ON Januars 23, we celebrated the 400th annisersary of the birth of Mary Ward, "that incomparable woman whom Catholic England gave to the Church" (Pius XII) and "an extraordinary Yorkshire woman, pioneer of the active, unenclosed congregations for woman" (Pope John Paul 11).
I oday, three branches of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Loreto sisters look to Mary Ward as their foundress.
She wanted her companions to be governed by women so that women could share God's work of sending apostles into the world. She sought freedom from monastic enclosure so that her companions could go anyss here at any time for apostolic set-, ice, herever the needs of God's people are the greatest and where the most universal good can be effected."
She chose not to sing office in choir so that they could seek and find God in all things, and grow' in companionship with a Christ who is still at work in the world.
In the seventeenth century, Mary Ward's friends were a new and very different kind of 'nun' — English women seeking to engage in apostolic work and to teach girls — outside their enclosure and, at the same time. seeking both a deep interior holiness with a freedom from all that could make them adhere to earthly things, and living all the time a life of deep prayer combined with active apostolic work.
You will not be surprised to hear that they were unpopular and even persecuted by Church people, both ordinary layfolk and clergy alike, for they were the pioneers of a great tradition, a development or, if you like, a break away from the idea that nuns must live a protected life of isolation, enclosed within the walls of her convent, and not venturing abroad to teach or serve the poor and the needy.
Mary Ward herself sometimes dressed in silk and satins, but we are told that underneath she wore a rough hair shirt close to her skin, and at other times her clothes were sadly bedraggled. But even then she strode through the streets con (unto brio, lively, bright-eyed and merry with a certain elegance and firm step even if her feet were enclosed in rough old boots much too big for her — in search of a selfdenial that marked her whole life of service.
In the days when Shakespeare was writing his great dramas and Byrd his great music, when James 1st was King, women had a much lesser place in public life, and the thought of a nun emerging from the quite of her convent and coming out into the world, but without becoming worldly, was revolutionary.
Mary Ward had begun her religious life as a contemplative Poor Clare in the Low Countries
— for in those sad dash of religious intolerance and persecution there was no place for nuns or monks in England. Two years was enough to convince her that she w as called .to a different kind of Ii Fe, but w it hoot losing her deep spirituality and spirit of prayer. Once, while crossing the Alps (which she did six times) she stopped for Midnight Mass at Feldkirk. This sisit is commemorated in one of the 50 great paintings of her life. Its inscription reads: "On Christmas Eve, in 1626, Mary arrived at Feldkirk in the Tyrol and in spite of her fatigue and bitter cold she remained in the parish church from eight o'clock in the evening until three ill the morning, lost in God."
Mary Ward felt called to combine her religious vocation with a vocation of service, but without losing anything of the essential quality of being a nun.
In 1630 Mary Ward herself had the humiliation of having the whole idea and her Institute formally condemned and suffered the indignity of being imprisoned in an enclosed convent, denied all contact with her colleagues. She was allowed a small fire only in the evening and was subjected to the full force of jealousy, defamation and obstruction.
And yet, after her death, the work of Mary Ward succeeded„ sometimes without official recognition, though in later years one Pope after another spoke strongly in her favour and gave authoritative vindication.
Even the Pope who had first condemned her said in 1637 that she was: "A wOrtian of great prudence and of extraordinary courage and powers of mind, but, what is much more . . . a holy and great servant of God."
In 1951 Pope Pius XII spoke of her as "this incomparable woman, whom England in her darkest and bloodiest time, gave to the Church", and in 1982 the present Pope, John Paul II, speaking in Mary's beloved Yorkshire, and called her "an extraordinary Yorkshire woman who became a pioneer of the active unenclosed congregations for women".
Mary's dilemma was that Church Law insisted that new orders adopt one of those rules and constitutions already approved by the church, but for women these were only for enclosed religious. Her idea of coming and going on apostolic work in England arid wherever it was necessary needed freedom of movement and freedom from the nuns style of dress.
The only Constitution that came nearest to meeting her need was that of St Ignatius, who earlier in the century had created a new kind of society — the Jesuits. The Ignatian criterion for discernment in every age and situation has been
the seeking in all things of God's greater glory.
In 1611, Mary Ward felt that she had been shown "ine plicably and so abundantly " to "take the same of the Society." This new kind of society was religious but without monastic observances and without a religious habit. But the Constitutions of St Ignatius had expressly laid down that the Jesuit Fathers were not to accept care of an order of women.
In 1615 Mary was urged by her Jesuit confessor, Fr Roger Lee, that the time had come to write to the Pope about her projected Institute. She drew up a Memorial to the Pope, setting our her ideals.
She made clear that what she had in mind was that members of her Institute should work on their own perfection but devote themselves to the wellbeing of others, especially in the education of girls, although they would be ready to do any other work that was right for the times.
They were to be subject to the Pope alone; there was to be no enclosure and no religious habit — they would be allowed to conform their style of dress to that in general use.
Also, in line with the Jesuit Constitution, she requested that her congregation should be governed through its ow ri chief superior in Rome. Howes er, that request had to wait 100 years before it found full expression and ratification, when in 1745 Pope Benedict XIV declared "let women be governed by women". This was granted on condition that Mary Ward was not called its foundress.
Three months after receiving her document, Pope Paul V
replied in a brief to Bishop Blaise commending the Institute, desiring the bishop to help its members 'to produce daily more abundant fruits of their labours', and concluding: 'If, as we trust, it shall so conic to pass, then the Apostolic See will also deliberate about confirming their Institute.'
In 1616 Mary founded in Liege 'a complete college' in 1618 a novitiate, and three yews, later made foundations in Cologne and Treves.
Today, Mary Ward's Institute has spread to every continent, where some 4,600 of her present clay followers and companions labour in her name.
Here in Europe, the main work of the three branches of Mary Ward's Institute are in education in its w i(lest sense, in day and boarding schools and in children's homes, in pastoral work and increasingly in the directing of the spiritual exercises — that tool lot discerning and effecting the work of active apostles.