· Vatican City ·

Forerunners women

Without religious habit or cloister

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.500.281.jpeg
29 May 2021

With Mary Ward the first revolution of the nuns


In the year 1595, in Mulwith, a small town in Yorkshire, England, a ten-year-old girl was resisting her father’s will, who had planned an arranged and prestigious marriage for her. Born into a wealthy English family, Mary Ward was guided from her youth by an unshakeable faith, which would later give rise to calm but steadfast resistance to anyone who expected her to live a life following the usual tracks. The last of a series of attempts to get her married was attempted by her father confessor, but failed when, during the celebration of mass, the priest unexpectedly spilled the chalice.

In 1609, as the anti-Catholic persecutions became more and more fierce, Mary crossed the Channel to live out her religious vocation in the French monastery of the Poor Clares of Saint-Omer. She arrived there with some companions and entered, without taking her vows. However, the contemplative life needed an outlet in practice and so it was that Mary Ward, by opening a school in Saint-Omer, aimed specifically at the education of young girls. Henceforth, she founded the Company of the so-called “English Ladies”, since its members were all English Catholics. These were a group of women dedicated to the apostolate, but not bound by a Rule, and without habit or cloister. Their indissoluble bond with Ignatian spirituality, their closeness to the charism of the Society of Jesus, whose spirituality and way of life Mary adopted, earned them the name “Jesuitesses”.

In addition to the education of young women, the English Ladies gave material aid and spiritual support to persecuted and imprisoned Catholics, proclaiming God without wearing any religious garb, sometimes even dressing fashionably, ¬ so as to be able to carry out works of charity inconspicuously. Led by women who had refused to be cloistered, this innovative “active” apostolate, for the benefit of youth education and women’s dignity in society and the Church, had as its radiant centre in Ignatian spirituality centred on discernment. Through meditation and prayer, Mary’s bond with God grew stronger, more intimate, more colloquial, to the point that in her biography she stated, “God was very close to me and within me [...] I saw him enter my heart and hide there”. Her inner freedom was born precisely from this “direct” relationship with the Lord of whom she felt herself to be an “instrument”. This relationship was sung about in a shared but subdued way in one of her most beautiful prayers:  “O Parent of parents, and Friend of all friends, without entreaty you took me into your care and by degrees led me from all else that at length I might see and settle my love in You.  […] O happy begun freedom, the beginning of all my good”.

Discernment thus led her to reflect on what God’s plan for her was, and this awareness freed her from any form of possible temptation originating from “earthly things”. Neither riches, honour nor glory ever touched the mind and heart of this pioneer of an “unconventional” female religious life. Mary Ward, guided by the Spirit, thus demonstrated in fact that women were not weak and fickle creatures, to be destined either to marriage or to the convent, but were capable of action, prayer and life in the world. When, in 1611, during an ecstatic rapture, she heard the words “Take the same of the Company”, Mary was by then so familiar with the Ignatian rules of discerning spirits that she was ready to recognise where they came from and to which “banner” they belonged.

Acting in the knowledge that she was guided from above, she was able to withstand the countless objections and difficulties she inevitably encountered. This included the criticism of those who gossip for speaking openly about spiritual matters in front of grown men, including priests, to the patronising comments of Thomas Sackville who saw the “Jesuitesses” as fickle and exalted women (“their fervour will pass, for after all they are but women”).  Mary, addressing her companions, retorted,  “There is no such difference between women and men as to suggest that women cannot do great things, and it will be found that women in the future, as I hope, will do much”.

However, the sanctity of Mary Ward’s ordinary life and her project, which was too advanced for those times, continued to meet with obstacles and mistrust. Then, in 1631, Pope Urban VIII suppressed her work, which had already spread to several countries in Europe. Accused of being a “heretic”, schismatic and rebel against the Holy Church and considered dangerous for her efforts to give dignity and a role to women in the Catholic Church, she was “invited to stay” for a few months in the monastery of the Poor Clares in Munich. Mary refused to sign the guilty plea prepared by the inquisitors and in 1637 embarked on a long journey to Rome to meet the pope directly. When she was allowed to return to England two years later, she was able to open communities with a few companions, first in London and then in the village of Heworth, where she died in 1645.

Her congregation was not approved until 1703, while the Holy See did not give final approval to her Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary until 1877, on condition that Mary Ward’s name did not appear. It was not until the early 20th century that the climate changed and she was officially recognised as the founder. In 2003, the congregation took the name “Congregatio Jesu”, after receiving from Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe the Ignatian Constitutions adapted to women, as Mary Ward had wished.

Although she was declared Venerable in 2009, the process for her beatification is currently underway because of the heroic virtues she practiced during her lifetime.

By Elena Buia Rutt