Today I’d like to continue my alternative to the US Bishops’ Fortnight of Freedom. For the next thirteen days, I plan to profile a few of the many women who suffered a good bit at the hands of petty churchmen. I hesitate to call this religious persecution as such, just as I hesitate to look upon federal policy, as misguided as that might be, as an explicit attack on organized religion. It’s not nearly as grave as the countless opportunities the institution and individual believers face on a daily basis.
In profiling worthy women, I’m searching for people who made extremely difficult choices and suffered consequences because of their religious convictions. Hopefully we can observe their conduct in the face of freedoms denied and perhaps gain some needed perspective away from the current political tussles.
Crystal suggested Mary Ward this morning, and interestingly enough, she’s in the queue right behind Marguerite Porete.
Mary was a Catholic in Elizabethan England. There is a legend that as an infant the first word she uttered was “Jesus.” She also survived an arson attack on her home at age ten, praying with her sisters until her father rescued them.
Turning into the 17th century, Mary’s options for religious life would have been a choice of convents. And none of those options would have been provided in England of her day. So she crossed the Channel and settled with the Poor Clares as a lay sister for a while. Life with cloistered women didn’t fit God’s call for Mary, who was eventually inspired by the example of the Jesuits. Her notion was to assemble an institute of women independent of a bishop, living in non-cloistered community, and performing apostolic ministry in the world.
Her English ties were strong, and she returned to her homeland and recruited a small band of like-minded women until she was found out by the authorities. Her death sentence was commuted in return for exile. Returning to Europe, she was not free of opposition from Catholic clergy. She was mocked as a “Jesuitess” and though some admired her efforts in educating Catholic girls, many in the hierarchy insisted she make her institute look like nuns of the day.
Pope Urban VIII at first seemed open to Mary Ward’s plan. But in 1631, The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary was suppressed. Mary was soon thereafter taken into custody as a “heretic, schismatic, and rebel to the Holy Church.” Though released after a brief imprisonment in a convent, Mary’s plans for her age were in ruins. She returned a final time to England and died in 1645, decades before her institute was rehabilitated and enjoyed a worldwide reach, just as the spiritual sons of Ignatius Loyola now enjoy. Today, a pope praises her, and has officially set her on the path to recognized sainthood.
Still today, many Catholics think women and women religious have their place. People shake their heads and wonder about the seeming opposition from clergy, bishops, and Rome. But there’s nothing new here. Good ideas are often stifled before they can blossom into a true apostolate. And the urging of the Holy Spirit in men and women is nothing to be trifled with. In Mary’s case, she was not even recognized as the founder of the Loreto Sisters until 1909. But I am sure her calm persistence in the face of danger from the enemies of the Church and mockery from the lips of brothers in belief contributed to the spirit of this worthy woman, and those others she has inspired. May we all be dedicated to learning and discernment, and honor Mary Ward as a model and inspiration for faith today in a difficult time when challenges to religious freedom present themselves, especially from within the Church itself.
If in need of an optimistic word …
Remember that he (God) be the end of all your actions, therein you will find great satisfaction and think all things easy and possible.