It was made clear to Mary Ward in 1611 that her own group of companions were to ‘take the same’ as the Society of Jesus. She recognised that the Jesuit ‘pathway to God’ could also be followed by women, who could make a unique and valuable contribution to the Church and society of their times.
The words that came to Mary during her retreat in 1615, ‘Freedom, justice, sincerity’, she understood to be the qualities needed for the life of apostolic religious women: freedom from all disordered attachments so as to be free to serve God wholeheartedly through works of justice, and this done with sincerity, being ‘such as we appear and appear such as we are.’ This is Mary Ward’s way of expressing Ignatius’ core belief that God is to be encountered in all things and labouring in all things, and that we are called to join him in his mission. Mary continues to reassure us:
“This seems the way: that they should first of all know it, after that desire and endeavour for it a little, and God would do the rest”.
Our ‘way of proceeding’
The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius are central to our life and the foundation stone of our Institute. Mary’s realisation that the Jesuit ‘pathway to God’ could be followed by women has only really been appreciated in recent decades – ours is a holistic spirituality, embracing femininity and masculinity, with integration as its aim, the call to be fully alive, in a way which must surely be what Mary Ward hoped for…
“to be such as we appear and appear such as we are…”
The contribution and unique insights of women to the Church and society was recognised by Mary Ward in the 17th Century – in our various ministries we strive to find ways to empower women to recognise their giftedness and reclaim their strength, and to find ways of being a part of Church structures.
The dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises leads us to a desire to respond to the call of Christ in our present world and this has resulted in changes in the focus on our ministry in recent years. Mary Ward saw the great need of education for girls, and for many years this continued to be the main focus of our ministry. While this is still a significant part of our ministry, in recent years the Headships of our educational establishments have been handed over to lay staff, while most of the sisters have branched out to respond to other equally urgent needs.
Every generation needs to reflect anew on Mary Ward’s challenge to us to live lives of ‘freedom, justice and sincerity’ and the words on her tombstone: ‘To love the poor… live, die and rise with them… was all the aim of Mary Ward…’ guide our efforts to respond and reflect in our ministries the preferential option for the poor. Mission today often demands a willingness to be uprooted, and so, in response to a call from our Institute Leader, one of our sisters is now in Albania, working with people who live in some of the poorest conditions in Europe.
A significant part of our mission today lies in chaplaincy, parish and retreat work, and interfaith dialogue, as we seek ways to respond to the spiritual needs of our times, and to provide people with the means to deepen their relationship with God. This work is sometimes done in collaboration with the Jesuits – this is perhaps fulfilling today Mary Ward’s dream which was crushed so decisively in her own day.
The priority we give to mission has implications also for our community life. While many of us live in community, others live ‘in dispersion’, going wherever our particular ministries take us. We are united with one another in mind and heart, and in the mission of the body of the Institute, through our Vow of Obedience to those in Leadership. Mary Ward pioneered a new way of religious life, one in which the Vows were not lived out within enclosure and with a strict law, but instead she sought a formation that would enable us to remain true to our calling whether living in a religious community or outside it, in a rich household or a poor servant’s lodgings.