Mary Ward (1585-1645) was once described by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, as doing more harm to the English Church than six Jesuits. In a time when spiritual service was praiseworthy for men but quite unacceptable and unthinkable for women, Mary strove to embody her belief that she was called to something more than ordinary in the service of God.
My congregation, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters) and our sister congregation, the Congregation of Jesus, are celebrating the life and inspiration of Mary Ward this week. From January 23 (the anniversary of her birth) to January 30 (the anniversary of her death), we are taking time to pray with the life and works of our founder, to reflect on her enduring inspiration for us today, and to celebrate the mission and vitality of her Institute around the world.
During Mary Ward week, I am often drawn back to reflect on my experience at the 2019 Mary Ward Summer School, an intensive three-week study program for Sisters and those who collaborate in our mission. It was an incredible experience, learning together with companions from both congregations, and discovering our personal connections to our founder and to each other.
What I deeply appreciated from the experience was the gift of a new perspective of Mary as a complex human being and not ‘merely’ a sainted figure. Her childhood in Reformation England, where she witnessed incredible suffering and violent persecution of Catholics, but also the witness of the strength of her grandmother and other women in her family, provided the backdrop for her passion for mission in service of the Church. Her spiritual life was formed by the Jesuit priests who came to stay at her family homes, who instilled in her the idea of perfection in the spiritual life, which blossomed into a desire to become “wholly God’s”. Her profound relationship with God solidified her call: she knew that she was called to serve God through apostolic service in a manner similar to the Society of Jesus and she knew that the members of her Institute were called to be women of freedom, justice, integrity, and joy. Despite the challenges she endured, particularly the suppression of her Institute, she continued to believe that God’s Providence was always at work.
The example of her life, her strong spirit and rootedness in God, have given me strength, hope, and inspiration throughout the years of my formation and continue to nourish me. As a temporary professed Sister, trying to navigate an increasingly complex and challenging congregational life that is marked by diminishment, her life story gives me the courage to persevere and trust that God’s will will always be done, no matter the confusion or frustration. I choose to trust that God will show the way and shine the light in dark places.
An extraordinary gift of the Summer School was a visit to the Bar Convent archives for the opportunity to read and, even more, to touch, a letter Mary had written, as well as handwritten manuscripts of A Briefe Relation, the first biography of Mary Ward, written by her early companions It was a thrill, too, to read handwritten meditations from the Spiritual Exercises that they had compiled for their use.
Mary’s life story was suddenly not just a story, some fable or legend that we have passed down through generations of Sisters, but the reality of one woman’s vision, her commitment to her companions, and their efforts to live the manner of life they felt God had called them to.
She lived her spirituality, she lived her faith every day. Through her prayer life she strove for the disposition of indifference, to act with right intention, to develop interior peace and spiritual balance, to be humble, to be grateful and hopeful, and absolutely, at the foundation of her being was her love for Christ and her desire to serve him, follow him, and give her life totally to him. On her tombstone are written these words:
To love the poor,
persevere in the same,
live, die, and rise with them
was all the aim
By God’s grace, her life will continue to inspire others to respond to the call of religious life.
As we honour the life and inspiration of Mary Ward this week, I invite my companions on the journey – my Around the Well friends – to join our celebration by participating in these events:
- An online Mass in honour of Mary Ward, celebrated from Loretto Abbey chapel. You can view the Mass via YouTube.(Sunday, January 23)
- An online liturgy featuring a reflection by Sr. Gill Goulding, CJ (Tuesday, January 25 @ 7:30pm) Register here: https://bit.ly/3ngrxim
- Annual Teresa Dease Lecture presented by Dr. Susan K. Wood, SCL (Regis College) on the topic “Beyond Spiritual Ecumenism: An Ecumenical Spirituality” (Thursday, January 27 @ 7pm) Register here: https://bit.ly/3fgeLM1
- More information: ibvm.ca
Blog post by Sarah Rudolph, ibvm
Photo of A Briefe Relation manuscript from Bar Convent, York
Painting of Mary Ward, Augsburg
Artwork by Susan Daily, ibvm