Pioneer for women in ministry; "venerable"
Born in 1585 into a devoted Catholic family in Yorkshire, from childhood Mary Ward knew religious persecution, not unlike trouble spots in today's world: raids, imprisonment, torture, execution. Frequently separated from her family for her own protection, Mary was inspired by their steadfast heroism. At age fifteen, she felt called to become a religious. Since religious communities had been dispersed decades previously in England and on the continent, cloistered life was the only option for women at that time. She left England to become a Poor Clare. Through special graced insights, God showed her that she was to do something different and would manifest God's glory. Leaving the Poor Clares, she worked in disguise to preserve the Catholic faith in England before founding a community of active sisters in 1609 [the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary IBVM] at St. Omer in present-day Belgium. Without cloister, she and her companions educated young women, helped persecuted and imprisoned Catholics, and spread the word of God in places priests could not go. The Sisters lived and worked openly on the continent, but secretly in England, to nurture the faith.
At one time, she was imprisoned in England for her work with outlawed Catholics. Many who knew her, from bishops and monarchs to simple people, admired her courage and generosity. In days before Boeing 747's or even Amtrak, she traveled Europe on foot, in dire poverty and frequently ill, founding schools in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria, and in today's Czech Republic and Slovakia. Criticized and maligned for her efforts to expand the role of women in spreading the faith, she was imprisoned by Church officials who called her a dangerous heretic. Her work was destroyed, her community suppressed, and her sisters scattered. Never abandoning her trust in God's guidance, she died in York, England, in 1645 during the Cromwellian Civil War. To the end, she trusted totally that what God had asked of her would be accomplished in the future.
Mary Ward taught by example and words. Act "without fear" in quiet confidence that God will do his will in the confusion. Her unwavering fidelity to "that which God would" was nourished by deep contemplative prayer. To Mary, God was the "Friend of all friends." She lived her fidelity with cheerfulness and a passion for truth. What may seem to us ordinary was startling in her time: she had no pattern to follow when she established her community for women, except the life and work followed by the Jesuit men. She sought to empower women to fulfill whatever part God called them to play, as did the women in the Acts of the Apostles, as women concerned for the poor. Mary and her companions established free schools, nursed the sick and visited prisoners. Even her Protestant neighbors attested to her love for the poor and her perseverance in helping them. Her concept of freedom for her community, externally from cloister, choir, habit, and rule by men, and internally in the ability to "refer all to God," enabled her to live undeterred by adversity, never deviating from the way God called her. She invited her followers to "become lovers of truth and workers of justice."
Not until 1909 did the Church finally recognize Mary Ward as founder of the IBVM. She was a pioneer for women's role in Church ministry and a woman ahead of her time in shaping apostolic religious life as we know it today. Mary Ward expected much and believed with all her heart that, "Women in time to come will do much."
In December 2009 Pope Benedict XVI recognized Mary Ward as a woman of "heroic virtue" and conferred on her the title "venerable."
Copyright 2005 by the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, IBVM. All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with permission.
Nearly 200 years after the dispersion of her sisters and her own death, Mary Ward's surviving community in northern England had a burst of new life when a Dublin-born woman who had joined them brought the IBVMs to Ireland, from where they spread and brought their schools to countries around the world. See "Ball, Teresa."
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Ways of Christian Living, Two Different
The crucial importance of Ignatian discernment
As American Catholics moved out of the immigrant ghetto and often with the help of a college education into the mainstream of American life in the second half of the 20th century (symbolized by the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960), profound changes came to American Catholic culture. These changes were supported and enhanced by the Second Vatican Council which ushered in the age of the laity; instead of allowing themselves to be treated by church leaders as children told what to do, they had a sense of themselves as equal to (or even better than) the hierarchy in many areas of life and learning. They needed to be treated as adults, an adjustment not always easy for priests or bishops to make then or now.
In this context, a radical shift was coming in the way many Catholics (like other Christians) lived their lives. A new way was emerging in which keeping many rules and regulations tended to recede from consciousness and living the appropriate but riskier life of adult responsibility open to circumstances and situations assumed the larger place. Hence the importance of what Ignatius and the early Jesuits taught and practiced about discernment. To see a diagram contrasting the two different ways--The Way of Rules and Regulations vs. The Way of Discernment" click here.
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Each fall, six western Jesuit universities sponsor a conference called Western Conversations in Jesuit Higher Education bringing faculty delegates together for in-depth discussions on important topics related to the Jesuit Catholic educational mission. Participating institutions include Gonzaga University, Loyola Marymount University, Regis University, Santa Clara University, Seattle University and the University of San Francisco.
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- See Juana, S.J.
- GC 34, Decree 14: Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society
- A Woman Jesuit
The Influence of Mary on Ignatius Loyola
Drs. Margo Heydt and Sarah Melcher
The Role of Women in Jesuit Education
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Women, Ignatius of Loyola and
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Women Religious in their Foundations and since Vatican II
In the fall of 2013, we featured on this "Jesuit A to Z" tab of our website brief biographies of twelve Founders of Women Religious Communities, written for us by members of those communities. They were founded as early as the 16th century and as late as the 19th. Most have some affinity with Ignatian/Jesuit spirituality. All of them are well represented among American apostolic (rather than contemplative) religious congregations today. And current historical research reveals that they and their peers have long been key agents for good in the life of the church and the nation (e.g., education, health care, social service).
In this time that marks 50 years since Vatican Council II, what makes looking back to the origins of these communities so rewarding is the way their foundations can help us understand active, apostolic sisters today. How well they appropriated the Council's spirit and teachings. And, in spite of aging and of shrinking numbers, how creatively and compassionately they are serving the church and the world in their 21st-century ministries. One could say that the Spirit is palpably alive in them.
A new prophetic "life-form"
One consequence of the Vatican investigation of U S women's apostolic communities (launched in 2009) was a new sense of awareness of their distinctive identity. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, articulated this sense in a series of five essays for the National Catholic Reporter online. Here are some of the characteristics she identifies:
- Women's religious life, despite the numbers, is not dead or dying; it will survive.
- The three vows are maintained and reinterpreted to yield new life, consecrated celibacy gives the freedom to go where the need is; obedience is given to the gospel and not to superiors; poverty is real when sisters live among and/or work with the poor.
- Community life happens because the sisters interact with one another in frequent and meaningful ways, not because they live under the same roof.
- After the gospel, the "bible" of post-Vatican II sisters is the last document of the Council, "The Church in the Modern World."
- These sisters do not belong to the clerical power structure of the church. Rather than being at the center, they are at the margin where they can exercise a critical and prophetic role over against the failures of the main stream. (If they were ordained, they would lose their marginality, their "power.")
- In contrast to male religious orders who tend to keep corporate institutional ministries, sisters' ministries are often individual--just one sister among lay people.
- The distinctiveness of individual communities and spiritualities is giving way to a sense of solidarity across community lines; collaboration in formation, living, and ministry is common.
For a fine summary of Schneiders' presentation, see McBrien,, "Essays in Theology" (March 16 and 23, 2010), National Catholic Reporter online.
For the full context of her original essays along with those essays themselves, see Schneiders' book-length version: Prophets in Their Own Country: Women Religious Bearing Witness to the Gospel in a Troubled Church (Orbis, 2011).
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Women Religious Communities, Founders of Some
Many of the following founders and their communities have an affinity for Ignatian/Jesuit spirituality. But, with or without this connection, the sisters' biographies have an importance in themselves. In what they founded, one can often see the seeds of women's religious life that would come to be after Vatican II.
See the entries under each individual founder's name:
Barat, Madeleine Sophie Religious (Society) of the Sacred Heart--rscj
Billiart, Julie, & Francoise Blin de Bourdon Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur--SNDdeN
Clarke, Mary Frances Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary--BVM
Couderc, Therese Religious of the Cenacle--rc
Durocher, Marie Rose Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary--SNJM
Fontbonne, St. John Sisters of St. Joseph--CSJ
George, Margaret Farrell Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati--SC
Guerin, (Mother) Theodore Sisters of Providence--SP
McAuley, Catherine Sisters of Mercy--RSM
Merici, Angela The Ursulines--OSU/CSU
Seton, Elizabeth Bayley Sisters of Charity [in the US]--SC
"Women Religious, Some Contemporary"
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Women Religious, Some Contemporary
For the lives of some contemporary women religious, see
John Feister, Thank You, Sisters: Stories of Women Religious and How They Enrich Our Lives (Franciscan Media [formerly St. Anthony Messenger Press], 2013)
-----Helen Prejean, Joan Chittister, Dorothy Stang, Thea Bowman, and others-----
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JESUIT A TO Z: An expanded version of the publication "Do You Speak Ignatian?"