Mary Ward Summer School 2019 – Week 1: The Early Life of Mary Ward

Mulwith, Mary Ward’s birthplace

The galloping girls of the Mary Ward Summer School have been hard at work. We finished our first week of studies with a weekend exploring the Yorkshire countryside, visiting sites of particular significance to Mary Ward.

The gorgeous Yorkshire countryside

This past week we delved deeply into the early life of Mary Ward, learning about the historical world in which she lived: Elizabethan England, the Reformation, and the violent persecution of Catholics. We learned about her family and the early influences on her life, especially the strong women in her life: her grandmother, Ursula Wright, who spent a total of 14 years in prison, at various times in her life, for her faith, and other female relatives who maintained the faith in their homes by housing priests and ensuring Mass for the family. We learned about the lives of a number of women who were martyred for their faith – the legacies of Margaret Clitherow of York, in particular, as well as Anne Line and Margaret Ward (no relation to Mary). All of these women were eventually killed for harbouring priests and were noted for their bravery and strong faith. It’s not a surprise that as a young woman, Mary dreamed about being a martyr for her faith, desiring to serve and honour God with her life. Her whole life was gounded in the struggle for the Catholic faith during a tumultuous and violent period of history.

Ripon Cathedral, where Mary Ward’s siblings were baptized (she may have been baptized here, too, but other evidence points to a secret baptism at home)

The Ward family crest, on which the IBVM/CJ crosses are based (our insignia)

The baptismal font

At the end of the week we looked closely at Mary’s initial spiritual formation, spending a day learning about the Jesuit mission to England, and in particular, Robert Southwell, SJ and his devotional book Short Rules of a Good Life.This book gave Catholics the means for a way of life that incorporated religious and devotional practices into their day-to-day activities. For example, it gave a structure of prayer for the day, suggested how to make the home a pilgrimage site by dedicating each room to a saint (especially helpful because these people had no access to sacred space, such as a church), offered exercises for developing the virtues, and provided other rules of conduct and moral behaviour (such as strict obedience to superiors, i.e. the spiritual director).

The Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Grace – in Osmotherley –  when Mary was severely ill, her companions made a pilgrimage here to pray for her recovery. When Mary recovered, she, too, made a pilgrimage here, in thanksgiving.

The beautiful chapel of Our Lady of Mount Grace

As we read the Rules, we could see how significantly Mary had been influenced by them, noting how they are reflected in her writings and in her early religious practices. Similarly, we could appreciate how these Rules were permeated with Ignatian spirituality and even the Jesuit Constitutions, providing a strong Ignatian foundation for Mary’s future efforts and her Institute.

Ripley Castle, home to the Ingilby family, close relations of Mary Ward

The pilgrim Mary Ward welcomed us to our tour of the castle and told us about her family history here

Some of the grounds at Ripley Castle – I am obsessed with the Yorkshire skies – they are constantly shifting shape – I could watch them contentedly for hours!

Charged with this new knowledge, and with a deeper appreciation of the woman Mary was, we visited sites of meaning to her and to her Institute.

Stained glass in the Catholic church in Bishop Thornton depicting Mary Ward, an attempted foundation at Dole Bank, the Bar Convent in York, and Harewell Hall where Mary spent some time during her childhood – the stained glass was a gift from the family of a former pupil of the school at Ascot

Personally, I have found this week extremely consoling, spiritually. I feel very close to Mary Ward, and like there is a real bond of intimacy growing between us, as I learn more about her, bit by bit. We have taken in a huge amount of information this week (with two more weeks to go!), and it will take more time to integrate it all, and to go deeper into the material. But what I have learned has already given me new insight into and appreciation for the woman Mary was and her complexity as a human being. I also have a keener sense of the tremendous challenge she faced in undertaking to fulfill what God called her to do in founding her Institute. Lastly, I have an even deeper sense of gratitude to God for the gift of Mary Ward in my life, the gift of my vocation to religious life, and most especially, the gift of my vocation to Mary Ward’s Institute.

On to Week Two!

Harewell Hall – it was here the Mary prepared for her First Communion and had the unusual encounter with a rider supposedly delivering a letter from her father to tell her to postpone her First Communion – of course, she knew the letter was false and went ahead with the sacrament

Renewal – Attire

A depiction of Mary Ward wearing the traditional IBVM habit although
it’s unlikely that she dressed quite like this.

I’ve decided to end my blogging spree on Vatican II renewal with an issue that is a bit of a thorn in my side. Often, the biggest critique I hear about the effects of Vatican II has to do with clothing. I’ve heard complaints that women religious went wild after Vatican II, rejecting the habit, which somehow means that they also reject church teaching and authority, and are therefore a lesser version of their sisters in habits. I’ve seen this mentality in posters advertising Catholic conferences for which admission is free for men and women religious, as long as they wear their habit.

To be honest, I’m not too bothered about the clothes. When I was discerning a vocation and investigating religious communities, I didn’t care whether or not the sisters wore a habit. I was looking for a community in which I could be fully myself and contribute the gifts I have been given by God. I understand and respect the symbolic nature of the habit and I respect those communities who do wear one but I also don’t see it as a sign of lesser commitment to religious life to not wear a habit.

The IBVM did wear a habit for a long time even though Mary Ward did not wear a habit and did not want her sisters to wear one. In order for Mary Ward and her sisters to be effective in their mission and to work among the people, they did not wear a habit. However, successive generations of sisters were introduced to the habit by church hierarchy and eventually it became a requirement under canon law. Those generations of sisters did adopt the habit and it became an important part of their identity.

However, with the renewal of Vatican II, religious communities were encouraged to go back to their roots and the vision of their founders and foundresses. The IBVM, after careful discernment, decided to return to habit-less life, as per Mary Ward’s vision, wearing contemporary clothing. This occurred gradually over many years, beginning with a modified habit before the sisters were donning street clothes. I believe in Mary Ward’s vision for her Institute and in the dignity of women religious who do not wear a habit. Whenever I hear criticism about the clothing worn by women religious, I will go back to this statement by Mary Ward, shared during the 1967 Chapter of Renewal:

Our attire should be such as can provide an example of Christian modesty and the other religious virtues to seculars and others: such as poverty, elegance (good taste and appropriateness) and religious decorum. Our clothing should accord with the type that honourable women of the region where we are needed or dwell, wear. We should be ever alert to opportunities for greater perfection and at the same time always rejecting anything that savours of the slightest worldliness or vanity. Submission to God and the common good should be the guiding line of our progress.
        – From Mary Ward’s Memorial to Pope Paul V

Renewal – Poverty

The pilgrim Mary Ward, free to refer all to God, free to live the vow of poverty.

Poverty continues to be something I wrestle with, especially after my experiences in the Philippines. I am drawn to it, desire it, long for it. And I am challenged by how to live it here in Canada. I find comfort and inspiration in the words coming from the 1967 Chapter of Renewal.

Poverty is not dependent solely on lack of material things, nor even modern ‘insecurity’; rather it is dependence upon God from whom we receive all we have, a dependence which should also be a ‘shining’ witness.

Common life, devotion to labour, sharing with the poor, and ‘frugal’ living are all manifestations of the reality of the spirit of poverty. Ultimately, poverty means total dedication – of time, talents, all circumstances – a gift of self to Christ in others, a response to Christ who emptied Himself.

Mary Ward’s Vision of the ‘Just Soul’ would seem to embody our Foundress’ concept of the total dependence upon God and ‘perfect liberty…(to) refer all things to God’ – in that state before the Fall when, receiving everything, they experienced no clinging, and in reality were never so poor.

Renewal – Obedience

Mary Ward’s obedience to the will of God led her to found the IBVM.

The vow of obedience is a topic I haven’t yet broached on this blog. Last October/November I wrote about the vows of poverty and chastity but didn’t get around to obedience (a Freudian slip?). I became engrossed in my immersion experience in Lipa and didn’t feel drawn to write about obedience after that. But the lack of a post has been duly noted and will be rectified at some point in the nearish future.

As I read through the archive material on obedience I became very aware of how differently the vow was lived out in the pre-Vatican II world of IBVM religious life. I have great respect for the sisters of that time who lived the practice of being sent for mission without any consultation. That would be a great challenge for me. I have to admit that I feel deep gratitude that I am living in an era of religious life where that is no longer the practice. Here are a few selections from the 1967 Renewal Chapter that stood out to me. I suspect that the living out of the vow of obedience has continued to evolve since that time.

The apostolic nature of obedience is basic to our vocation and its ultimate norm is the will of the Father, sought and found through a deep spirit of faith in the decisions of superiors whose role it is to “serve rather than please”.

A key aspect of the newer approach to obedience is the prior consultation with the sisters before the superior makes a decision. This is rather a mutual ‘discernment of spirits’, listening to the Spirit, than a democratic majority rule…

The stress today is upon total life commitment rather than minute prescriptions, upon the importance of forming one’s conscience, upon obedience as ‘being sent’, upon individual discernment regarding exceptions, upon personal responsibility for the permissions one asks, upon the necessity for mutual openness and humility.

Renewal – Chastity

Chastity frees us to move out into the world and to respond with love.

I’ve written about chastity before so I won’t go into much detail here. But as I read the Chapter of Renewal notes, I was struck again by the beauty of the vow of chastity and its gift of opening us up to the world.

The motive of Chastity is love of God; the result of Chastity is instense love of neighbour; it is nourished by a spirit of prayer. Our Chastity frees us for deep, personal relationships with one another. Rather than a protective attitude, it engenders a continual growing in love, and a continuing going out to others. 

This makes demands on us: openness to the Holy Spirit’s urging; a learning to accept love; mutual acceptance and reciprocal giving. It is God Who first loved us and Who gives us the capacity to love. The test of love is not emotion, but trust and service; ultimately love is a mystery.

Renewal – Vocations

Mural depicting scenes from Mary Ward’s life

As I read through the minutes of the 1967 Chapter of Renewal, I was struck by the concern about vocations, and particularly the shortage of vocations to meet the demands for ministry. It seems to me that the vocation shortage then can’t begin to compare with what we are experiencing now, however, it helped me to see that the decline in vocations has not been sudden but has been in effect for some time. I was struck by the Institute’s reflection on the cause of the decline in vocations and I wonder if it is still applicable today.

There is a need of study into the causes of the present vocation shortage: the unstable culture of the astro-jet age; the widened opportunities in the lay apostolate; and the ‘identity crisis’ in religious life itself.

Might we not be being called now by the Holy Spirit to draw others through the sign of loving community. Perhaps the problem lies with our ‘image’ within the community, where lack of charity weakens mutual trust and forebearance. Today’s young women are especially sensitive to a lack of real community witness to the “Communion of Saints”. At reception, each is accepted as ‘a child of the Institute’. How can this be realized more fully?

Renewal – Friendship

Mary Ward’s Circle of Friends

Friendships are an important, frankly, essential, part of religious life. Friendship strengthens community and is a source of grace for living out the vows. Allowing deeper friendships within community life was recognized during the period of renewal.

From the 1967 Chapter of Renewal:

Our interpersonal relationships depend upon our experience of love in our houses – there exists great room for ‘shading’ here – and basically on our relationship with Christ.

The young finally professed have special need for our understanding. A beginning might spring from a real awareness that things are different today, that we do not yet have the ‘answer’. Particularly effective is the ‘apostolate of (one’s) presence’, the power of ‘one kind, loving, understanding woman”.