Who was Mary Ward?

She was dangerous and she was innovative; a saintly pilgrim whom the Church branded a heretic and imprisoned in a filthy Munich cell in 1631.

While 17th century theologians were still wondering whether women had souls capable of apprehending God, scores of young women were risking everything to join Mary Ward’s Institute, drawn by her charismatic personality and deep faith.

Three centuries later, one of her followers, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said she was “God’s gift to the Church and society”, while Pope Pius XII described her as “that incomparable woman, whom England, in her darkest and most sanguinary hour, gave to the Church” and Pope John Paul II praised her in his encyclical on women, Mulieris Dignitatem.

She was one of the great female travellers of the 17th century, journeying on foot over the Alps a number of times amid the Thirty Years War to meet Pope Gregory XV and Urban VIII in Rome and answer the Church’s criticisms of her Institute.

As one of her followers, Sr MM Littlehales, CJ, wrote in her book, ‘Mary Ward: Pilgrim and Mystic’:

In the Elizabethan era – that age of outstanding personalities – she was exceptional. She was among the great 17th century travellers. Indefatigable, she went on foot from Liege to Rome, thence to Naples and Perugia more than once, twice from Rome to Munich and back, to Vienna and to Bohemia – the very borders of Islam. Besides other journeys, she crossed the sea ten times between England and Flanders. Her last and most remarkable journey, from Rome to England, ended in Yorkshire. All these travels were undertaken with the scantiest resources and in poor health – 6 times over the Alps in the depth of winter, through the occupying armies of the Thirty Years War and usually on foot except on two occasions when she was carried in a litter, apparently dying.”

Mary Ward and her companions, who came to be known as ‘the English Ladies’, founded religious communities and schools throughout Europe from St Omer and Liège in Flanders, via Cologne, Trier, Munich, Bratislava and Vienna to Perugia, Rome and Naples.

She strove to educate in and for society, not apart from it, and to educate young women in the Christian virtues and liberal arts so that they would be able to undertake more fruitfully their vocations in life. In her view, education was an advantage not a danger.

But ultimately, those in the hierarchy who wanted to rid the Church of these ‘Jesuitesses’ were successful as a Bull of Suppression was imposed on Mary Ward and her Institute in 1631.

She was jailed by the Inquisition as a ‘heretic, rebel and schismatic’. Some years later, with her life’s work in ruins, she died as the English civil war raged around her in York in 1645.

In 1921, English Cardinal Bourne wrote, “It is a duty of gratitude to recall continually to the Catholics of England, and indeed of the whole United Kingdom, as well as to the teaching orders of religious women throughout the world, that the existence of modern educational and charitable Congregations, such as we know then in their almost countless multiplicity, was made possible by the supernatural foresight, the heroic perseverance and sufferings of Mary Ward. She waged the battle to the point of apparent defeat, of which they are now reaping the victory.”

Mary Ward’s Vision

Mary Ward challenged the prevailing ethos which suggested that the only path to real holiness for women was inside an enclosed convent.

She also argued that being female was not in itself a barrier to holiness when her community in St Omer was told by a visiting Jesuit that their initial “fervour will decay” because “when all is done, they are but women”. This hurtful and disparaging comment gave rise to some of Mary Ward’s most remarkable recorded thoughts, which are now usually referred to as the ‘But Women Conferences’. Her response was: “Women in time to come will do much.”

“Realising that her mission was to be worldwide, she rejected episcopal government, substituting government by a Superior General of her own order. Such features, enjoyed by thousands of women religious working in many ministries today, are now taken for granted and are seldom ascribed to Mary Ward, to whom they are due.” (Gregory Kirkus, CJ)

This model of vowed life which this charismatic Englishwoman proposed was seen as too radical and threatening to the accepted norms of female religious life in her own lifetime.

However, Mary Ward accepted that there were limits on what women were allowed to do. For example they “may not administer the sacraments nor preach in public churches”.

But she did ask: “… but in all other things, wherein are we so inferior to other creatures that they should term us ‘but women’? As if we were in all things inferior to some other creation, which I suppose to be men! Which I dare be bold to say is a lie, and, with respect to the good Father, may say it is an error.”

According to Sr Gregory Kirkus, CJ, “she cannot be claimed as a feminist in the modern sense of the term, for her motivation was not the rights of women, but always the will of God”.

In the ‘But Women Conferences’ and also in her writings about the ‘estate of justice’, Mary Ward is working out a way in which women in religious life could be active in the world.

Freedom & Love

One of the most important aspects of her spirituality was her emphasis on serving God through love.

‘I will do these things in love and freedom or leave them alone.’

In the age in which she lived – the late 16th and early 17th century, the dominant motive in moral theology was fear. People were taught to fear hell and to fear punishment, as a means of bringing them to God.

Mary found this approach repellent. As a teenager she realised that actions performed ‘by constraint’ – that is out of fear of failure or punishment, have no spiritual value. Mary Ward discerned that only acts arising out of love are pleasing to God. Love cannot be constrained or forced, nor is it produced by fear. It must be freely chosen.

Elsewhere, she explores the importance of Verity: “This is verity: to do what we have to do well.” In other words to do ordinary things well, in every office or employment whatsoever it be.

This concept of holiness is grounded in faithful attention to the task in hand however ordinary or insignificant that might seem to be. In carrying out these tasks and striving for perfection, she suggests that fervour is not placed in the feelings but in a will to do well, which women may have as well as men.

Some of Mary Ward’s first and most faithful companions: