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Venerable Mary Ward: "That Incomparable Woman" PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Saturday, 19 December 2009 08:17


I am so excited to hear that Mary Ward is being declared Venerable!

The extraordinary Mary Ward is a great example of the prominent role that women played in the persecuted English Catholic community. Mary was related to most of the recusant families of England and all the women in her family - mother, grandmother, aunts - were very devout and had spent years in prison for their faith. Imagine the impact of that kind of modeling on a highly intelligent and devout young girl.

Mary was classically educated and spoke and read several languages, including Latin. Like many Englishwomen from the higher classes, Mary Ward enjoyed much greater freedom and independence than was available to women in most Catholic countries at that time - especially in Rome.

In response to a direct vision from God, Mary established the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary to educate girls. The congregation's innovative approach to the education of girls (including Latin!) quickly spread over the Europe as they were invited in by bishops. They were commonly known as the “English Ladies” by their friends.

The story of Mary's trials and adventures are endless. She walked across Europe many times to establish new congregations – including across the Alps in mid-winter. Most of her houses struggled with terrific poverty. Some of her sisters literally died of starvation. Mary herself was seriously ill a good deal of the time. But her greatest adversaries were found in the Church she strove to serve.

Mary was completely faithful to the Church and her ultimate vision was to re-establish Catholicism in England but her vision of educated, non-cloistered religious women apostles, operating under the Jesuit rule, and answering to the Pope rather than to local bishops, was extremely controversial.

When a Jesuit Minister in Rome dismissed Mary’s burgeoning group with the memorable phrase “they are but women”, Mary famously responded:

“There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things . . .”

Mary was known for her unfailing charity toward her enemies and her resolute cheerfulness in all circumstances. "'in our calling, a cheerful mind, a good understanding, and a great desire after virtue are necessary, but of all three a cheerful mind is the most so'.

Her community was formally suppressed by the Pope in 1631 and Mary herself was imprisoned for two months in a Poor Clare convent by the Inquisition (although released by the Pope when he realized what had happened). Her community smuggled notes to her in prison that were written in lemon juice – a trick that English Catholics had learned to avoid persecution. Mary headed one of her letters written from prison "From my palace". The truth of Mary’s innocence, courage, and heroic virtue was recognized even then by many of her contemporaries.

One of the Poor Clares, who had a reputation for sanctity and a gift of discernment, said to the Abbess, “Mother how we have been misinformed! This is a great servant of God, whom we have received, and our house is happy in her setting foot in it. Let me at least have the happiness of going to look at her in the door, although I am not allowed to speak to her.” When the door was unlocked and unchained, Mary was astonished to see a venerable Sister kneeling on the threshold with clasped hands, praying devoutly and then after a few minutes withdrawing.” (From Mary Ward, Pilgrim and Mystic)

The 1631 Papal Bull of Suppression was never been rescinded. However, it was contradicted in 1703 by the approval of the Rules and the approbation of the Institute in 1877. It was only in 1909 that Mary Ward was publicly acknowledged as foundress of the Institute and her public rehabilitation began when Pope Pius XII called Mary "that incomparable woman" in his speech to the 1951 Congress on the Apostolate of the Laity.

In 2004, Mary’s congregation was finally allowed to live by the full Jesuit constitutions and formally took the name she had intended to give it: The Congregation of Jesus. Mary’s congregation celebrated the 400th anniversary of its founding in October. The first Catholic Mass held in magnificent York Minster since the Reformation was in honor of Mary Ward (January 29, 2009).

In 1879, when John Henry Newman learned that he was to be made a cardinal after suffering decades of mistrust, he wept and exclaimed that the cloud had been lifted from him forever. It has taken four centuries for Mary Ward's faith and obedience to God to be finally vindicated. It is a profoundly joyous thing that this anniversary year ends with the Church’s public recognition of her heroic sanctity.

There is a wonderful Life of Mary Ward told in 50 - 17th century paintings that hang in the IVBM convent in Augsburg, Germany.

Some of my favorites show Mary as a young woman evangelist in England.



At Coldham Hall in England, Mary obtained the conversion of a very wealthy but obstinately heretical lady, after many learned men had vainly employed all their zeal and eloquence in trying to convert her.

And here, Mary goes undercover by dressing as a servant to reach her aunt and bring her to the Catholic faith.



And here Mary quells a mutiny on board by invoking her patron St. James. Mary afterwards declared that she had never sought any favour from God through the intercession of this great prince of heaven without it being granted to her.


 

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