The plan for a new congregation blocked for a long time

Free of Rule and enclosure

 Senza  Regola e clausura  DCM-005
30 April 2022

This article was published in the September 2017 issue

The possibility of preparing to experience discernment as the centre of one’s spiritual life has not always been an available opportunity accessible prospect for women. The proof of this is the complex and painful story of Mary Ward, born in Yorkshire in 1585, when Catholic were undergoing a fierce persecution.at a time of persecution for Catholics. Those were difficult times for a young woman who from her adolescence felt the desire to defend, witness and spread the Catholic faith and intended to do so in the ways the Spirit dictated to her. These included shunning the idea that women were weak and fickle creatures, to be destined either to marriage or to convent life. Tenacious yet docile, independent and yet obedient to the point of spiritual martyrdom, Mary courageously listened to a call that revealed itself to her only gradually, amid uncertainties, painful second thoughts and strong signals.

“Take the same as the Society of Jesus” she had heard echoing in her mind in 1611, after a long period of meditation in search of God’s will. She therefore thought of founding a congregation modelled on the constitutions of the Society of Jesus, which would  be directly dependent on the Pope, exempt from the obligation of enclosure and dedicated to the apostolate in mission lands and in particular to the education of women. Henceforth, institutes were founded in various European cities, which she wanted governed by a superior general. However, her programme and her repeated attempts to obtain the Holy See’s approval failed, so much so that in 1631 Pope Urban VIII decided to suppress the congregation. Accused of heresy and imprisoned for a few months in the monastery of the Poor Clares in Munich, Mary refused to sign the guilty plea prepared by the inquisitors. When she was allowed to return to England, she continued to work, with a few companions, first in London and then in the village of Heworth, where she died in 1645.

Her educational mission in favour of women, her proposal of a female apostolate free from enclosure were the fruit of a spirituality centered on discernment. All her writings, as well as her prayers, attest to the fact that the practice of discernment grew and matured over time, becoming a true spiritual pilgrimage in search of what God wanted from her and for her, and in this journey prayer and meditation in the manner of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola were decisive. Mary’s prayer, initially “paralysed by a sense of duty and full of scruples”, became colloquial until it became extraordinarily free and confident of the actual truth of God working in her. “I beg all those who read this story”, she wrote in the opening words of her autobiography, “not to judge me for my weaknesses and frequent falls from grace, but instead to recognise the truth of God at work in me, and to thank him for his goodness”. In addition, she was not afraid to affirm, “God was very close to me and within me (...) I saw him enter my heart and hide there”.

From the inspiring notes taken during spiritual retreats, under the guidance of Jesuits Roger Lee and John Gerard, emerge the extraordinary freshness, authenticity and generosity of spirit with which Ward lived the reality of the incarnation, inviting also her companions to find God in small things as well as in big ones. Those pages evoke the need for every human soul to free itself from what binds it inordinately to earthly things, including the structures of power structures and dominating positions. By doing so, it would then be able to see and love those same things with Ignatian “indifference”, that is, with the inner freedom of someone who “relates everything to God” and by virtue of which “we can be who we appear and appear who we are”. Love for this inner freedom, the constant object of her prayer, helped her first to welcome and then to recount, in a letter to Roger Lee, the revelation she had of what she called the state “right soul”, that is, the state of integrated nature, principle and last end of every human creature. The holiness of ordinary life, which Mary Ward invoked for her own institute and for everyone, is summed up admirably in one of her 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.
What had I ever done to please You?
Or what was there in me wherewith to serve You?
Much less could I ever deserve to be chosen by You.
O happy begun freedom,
the beginning of all my good,
and more worth to me than the whole world besides.

To discern means to be attentive to and to interpret the graces received in one’s daily life. Above all, however, it means being able to differentiate the movements that come from the good spirit from those of the opposite sign. Mary, who was familiar with the Ignatian rules of discernment of spirits, and with the meditation of the Two Standards, knew this well: “What disturbs me inwardly and causes turmoil is not from God”, she commented, “for the spirit of God always brings with it a sense of freedom and great peace”. When, in 1611, she heard the words “take the same of the Company”, she understood their divine origin because those words gave her, she wrote, “such comfort and strength, they transformed her soul that she could not doubt that they came from Him whose words are works”.

When she received confirmation, also under the guidance of her spiritual directors, of the goodness of the moments of inner enlightenment, she was not afraid to abandon herself confidently to God’s will. She was even ready for the unknown, ready even, in her following of Jesus, to embrace the cross of evil and the limitations of the world. “My heart is ready, O God! My heart is ready! Put me where you will”.  “Neither life, nor death, my God, but your holy will be ever done in me”. In addition, she added, “What pleases you best that do. Only this, let me no more offend you; nor leave to do what you would have me”.

Her defence of the role of women was merely a corollary of her profound spirituality centred on the practice of discernment in the name of a veritas Domini that she testified: the truth of God that goes beyond concepts of gender differences and categories imposed by society or tradition. When Thomas Sackville said of her and her companions, “it is all right when they are at the beginning of their fervour, but the fervour will pass and when it all ends they are but women”, Mary, addressing her companions, said, “What do you think of this expression, ‘they are but women’? As if we were in every way inferior to some other creature that men are supposed to be (...) there is not so great a difference between men and women that women cannot do great things, and I hope with all my heart that it will be seen that women in the future will do much”. On another occasion, she heard a father say that he would not want to be a woman for anything in the world, because a woman could not contemplate God. I didn’t answer”, Mary says, “I just smiled even though I could have answered because I had had exactly the opposite experience. I could have had compassion for his lack of judgement, but no, he has judgement, what he lacks is experience”.

Mary Ward invites us too to practice discernment in our day, so that we may, like her, practice it for our own salvation and then put it at the service of other souls. John Wilson understood Mary’s intention in his own time and dedicated the book of meditations of Vincenzo Bruno (1614) to Mary Ward and her companions, who, he wrote, were working “for the spiritual good of others”, especially the poor, and ,I would add, whatever their poverty was – intellectual, spiritual or emotional.

The followers of Mary Ward were not recognised as a congregation until 1703. Final approval of their Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy See had to wait until 1877, and on condition, that Mary Ward’s name did not appear. After a few decades, however, the climate changed. In 1909 Ward was officially recognised as the founder, and in 1921 Cardinal Bourne had words of admiration for this “pioneer of women’s education”, approving her “supernatural foresight” and “heroic perseverance”. At the world congress of the lay apostolate in 1951, Pius XII called her an “incomparable woman” and in 1985, both Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II praised her obedience. Time was ripe. In 2003, the congregation adopted the Ignatian constitutions and, with the exception of the Loreto branch, took the name Congregatio Iesu. Four hundred years later, the words “take the same as the Society” had come true. In 2009, Mary Ward was finally granted the title of Venerable for the heroic practice of virtues she exercised during her lifetime.

A Member of the Women Church World Steering Committee


Who is she

Born in England in 1585, at the time of the persecution of the Catholics, she is a forerunner of a form of religious life for women that did not involve being cloistered.

She understood the importance of a sound education for women, and this brought her closer to the Society of Jesus, whose spirituality and way of life she wanted to adopt. In 1609, she founded the institute that came to be known as the English Ladies, dedicated to the apostolate, not bound by a Rule, without habit or being cloistered. In 1877 the institute was called the Blessed Virgin Mary, and since 2004, Congregatio Jesu.