Mary Ward

Born into a Yorkshire Catholic recusant family in 1585 Mary Ward was remarkable for being among the first women to believe that women should be actively involved in the apostolic life of the Catholic Church. However, initially she opted for the strictest form of contemplative religious life determined to give herself totally to God.

When God revealed to her that a life of prayer and obscurity behind a convent wall was not what she was called to she returned to London in 1609. Here with a group of like-minded young women she engaged in apostolic work disregarding the strict laws against Catholics at the time. Later that same year Mary realised that God was calling her to some form of religious life “more to his glory” To discern what it was she left London for Flanders with her young companions and founded her first house at St Omer.

In 1611, when at prayer, enlightenment came to her and she heard clearly the words: ‘take the same of the Society’ by which she understood the ‘Society of Jesus’ founded by St Ignatius of Loyola. The rest of her life was to be spent in developing a congregation of religious women on the Ignatian model for which she needed, and failed to gain, papal approval.

Three times she and her companions walked to Rome from Flanders, twice to try to gain this approval and the third time as a prisoner of the Inquisition following the suppression of her congregation by Pope Urban VIII in 1631. During this period she founded houses and schools in Liège, Cologne, Rome, Naples, Munich, Vienna, Pressburg and other places, often at the request of the local rulers and bishops, but papal approval eluded her.

To the Papal authorities a congregation of apostolic, unenclosed women was conceptually a step too far at a time when the reforms of the Council of Trent had forbidden new religious congregations and confined religious women to enclosure. Had she been prepared to compromise and accept a form of enclosure Mary might have obtained papal approval. However, she would not compromise and preferred to face the dissolution of her congregation, imprisonment, the imputation of heresy, and disgrace rather than abandon her conviction that “there is no such difference between men and women that women in time to come will do much”.

Summoned to Rome in 1632 to face charges Mary was granted an audience with the Pope at which she declared: “Holy Father, I neither am nor ever have been a heretic”. She received the comforting reply: “We believe it, we believe it”. No trial ever took place, but Mary Ward was forbidden to leave Rome or to live in community.

In 1637 for reasons of health Mary was allowed to travel to Spa and then on to England. She died during the English Civil War just outside York on January 30th 1645. She is buried in Osbaldwick Anglican churchyard close by.

Mary Ward's Spirituality

Mary Ward’s spiritual journey led her from childhood piety, to the enclosed contemplative life of the Poor Clares, to the Ignatian practice of finding God in all things – through joy, through searching, through suffering, through misunderstanding, and through disgrace – to the depths of mystical union with God.

Mary’s deep desire was to join the strictest contemplative order, and in 1606, following six years of opposition from her parents, Mary sailed to Flanders where she entered the Poor Clares. She was assigned a place with the lay sisters, which meant begging on the streets, rather than singing divine office in choir. Advised to leave this convent Mary helped to found a Poor Clare monastery in Gravelines where for two happy years she lived the contemplative life she had sought. However, God had ‘some other thing’ for her.

Finding God in all things came naturally to Mary Ward. One day in 1609 whilst in London doing her hair in the morning she fell into an ecstacy and for two hours could hear only the words: ‘Glory, glory, glory’. She understood that whilst she did not yet know what God had in mind for her, it would be to God’s greater honour and glory. Two years later, in a similar enlightenment, she heard distinctly the words ‘take the same of the Society’ understanding this to be a call to found a religious congregation of women on the model, but separate from, the Jesuits.

From this moment at the age of 26 her search was over. The rest of her life would be spent in striving to put into effect what she was certain God was asking of her. She never wavered in the face of doubt, opposition, hostility, poverty, suppression, imprisonment and disgrace. As her problems mounted so did her trust in God and her magnanimity in forgiving her enemies. Even when imprisoned by the Inquisition she could write to her companions: “Be merry and doubt not our Master”

From her early twenties Mary Ward was familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and chose a Jesuit as her spiritual guide. A deep spiritual insight in 1615 known as the ‘Just Soul’ vision helped her to realise that her original desire for the contemplative life was perfectly compatible with the active, apostolic ministry. God was to be found in all things.

Spirituality is essentially about how we see, experience, and respond to the world in which we live, and to God’s presence in it. Every religious congregation has a spirituality that reflects the spirituality of its founder.

Mary Ward, a woman close to God, wished to found an apostolic congregation modelled on that of the Jesuits. For the Jesuits, and therefore for us, the key experience is that of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.

These Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential spiritual texts ever to have been written, grew out of the spiritual experience of the young Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius came to realise through these experiences that God’s presence is to be found in the inner movements of the Spirit. By learning to listen and feel with profound attentiveness the desires God has for each one of us we can enter into a unique relationship with our Creator and ‘find God in all things’. Simultaneously, the individual making the Spiritual Exercises with great generosity of heart will feel impelled by love to offer him or herself to the service of God in mission. Mission, the service of others, lies at the very heart of our spirituality.

Mary Ward was led into paths unknown for women of her time by her attentiveness to the movements of the Spirit and her experience of discerning love. We hope to follow in her footsteps and in this way aspire to ‘find God in all things’ or, as Mary Ward would have put it, ‘to refer all to God’.

Mary, led by the Spirit, believed that women should not be afraid to take new paths in the service of the Church, and be open and ready to respond to the signs of the times where the need is greatest. Discerning the greatest need is only possible where there is attentive love, disponibility of spirit and freedom from fear.

The Constitutions of the Congregatio Jesu are those of the Society of Jesus adapted for women. In them the members of Mary Ward’s congregation find inner strength and an understanding of what it means to be focussed solely on the ‘greater honour and glory of God’. If we live the Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions as Mary Ward lived them we will come to understand what it means to be ‘a contemplative in action’ ready to be sent on universal mission.