Venerable Mary Ward and Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI’s regard for Mary Ward’s holiness and historical significance began long before he became pope.

Unknown, “Portrait of Mary Ward”
Unknown, “Portrait of Mary Ward” (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An author once asked me to review her new historical novel about St. Hildegard of Bingen. The review copy came from the publisher with promotional material highlighting the fact that in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI had canonized Hildegard and named her a Doctor of the Church in spite of the fact that he was “one of the most conservative popes in recent history.” (They also maligned Pope Saint John Paul II because he had neglected to canonize Hildegard even though he had canonized more saints than any pope in history at that time—he “had steadfastly ignored Hildegard's burgeoning cult!”)

I mentioned to the author I thought these were ridiculous comments and she responded that marketers often use conflict to bring attention to a product among certain audiences. So the publisher created this supposed conflict between Pope Benedict’s conservatism and his regard for St. Hildegard of Bingen to help sell the book.

Perhaps the same marketing department would think that in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed the 17th-century English nun Mary Ward as Venerable in spite of the fact that he was “one of the most conservative popes in recent history”!

Joseph Ratzinger’s regard for Mary Ward’s holiness and historical significance, however, began long before he became pope.


Recusant Nun and Founder

Mary Ward was born and died in Yorkshire, England (Jan. 23, 1585-Jan. 30, 1645). Her parents were Marmaduke Ward and Ursula Wright, recusant Catholics, faithful in spite of fines, imprisonment, and constant harassment for not attending Church of England services. Two of her relatives, uncles John and Christopher Wright, were involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The family home was burned down because the Wards were Catholic in 1595, and Mary moved into the home of the Babthorpes (whose ancestor Sir William Babthorpe had been involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace during Henry VIII’s reign). It was there that Mary discerned she had a religious vocation which meant exile from England since the religious life had been destroyed by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I (after a brief restoration under Mary I).

But in 1985, preaching at a Mass held in honor of the 400th anniversary of her birth, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that from the beginning of her life, Mary Ward followed the call of Jesus—of the very Name of Jesus: “The name Jesus became the path of her life. In fact the many journeys in the life of Mary Ward were made always in the ambit of that name, all her life was a response to the call expressed in the name of Jesus.” Hearing the call to a religious vocation, Mary traveled to Saint Omer in northern France to join the Poor Clares.

Saint Omer was also the location of the English College founded by Jesuit Father Robert Parsons, the priest who accompanied St. Edmund Campion on the mission to England in the early 1580s. Parsons had established the English College in 1593 as a school for laymen, not a seminary. It eventually became Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England. This Jesuit connection will be important for Mary’s life and mission.


An Order of Her Own

Leaving the Saint Omer Poor Clares in 1607, Mary established a convent of Poor Clares just for Englishwomen in Gravelines, France. Another English recusant, Elizabeth Tyldesley (Mother Clare Mary Ann), because its abbess in 1615 and had great success in growing the order, establishing additional convents. But Mary left the Poor Clares to return to Saint Omer, wanting to establish an active order of sisters, something quite new: they would not live in the enclosure of their convent but work among the people.

Mary modeled her order on the pattern of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Society of Jesus in spirituality and mission. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted in 1985, this new kind of religious order faced great opposition from the Church and therefore, “The Church caused Mary Ward great suffering but at the same time the Church was, and remained for her, her surest consolation and peace, the ground of all ages, the guarantee of the truth of the promise: one sows and another reaps.”

While Mary prepared documents describing the active apostolate of teaching, helping the poor and caring for the sick, she began to draw other women to her order establishing communities in Prague, Vienna, Cologne, Trier, Liege and Munich. All of them, except for the one in Munich, were suppressed in 1629 and Mary was confined in a Poor Clare convent in 1631. Cardinal Ratzinger said, “Even when she saw her work destroyed by the authority of the Church she remained obedient, remained, in a rebellious age, firmly anchored in the Catholic Church” and he ascribed to her the patience of a saint in the communion of saints, knowing that someday her vision would be implemented.

In 1639, Mary returned to England, established a school in York, and helped Catholics in the underground Church, dying in the midst of the English Civil War when she was 60 years old.


Her Vision of Education

In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger also expressed his particular appreciation of her vision of education:

Mary Ward found her own vocation in this word of the Lord: teach them to observe [“all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20)]. And with her charism she understood that one cannot teach the faith without forming the whole person, a totally human culture. On the other hand, she understood that every good teaching must be directed toward the art of being human and that the heart of this art is faith. I think it is the moment to thank the foundress Mary Ward and her daughters of these four centuries for their tireless work of pedagogy, of teaching anchored on the rock of faith. Only God knows the immense blessing which has come from this work and He too will reward all the effort, the patient sowing throughout so many generations. We pray that the Lord may stir up new vocations so that this sowing and reaping may continue.

One reason that Cardinal Ratzinger appreciated her educational charism so much was that he had benefited from it. As Pope Benedict XVI, he visited Scotland and England in 2010, almost a year after he declared her Venerable. He spoke on Sept. 17 to a group of Catholic educators, saying: “This gives me an opportunity to give thanks to God for the life and work of the Venerable Mary Ward, a native of this land whose pioneering vision of apostolic religious life for women has borne so much fruit. I myself as a young boy was taught by the ‘English Ladies’ and I owe them a deep debt of gratitude.” 


Ahead of Her Time

Like other founders and pioneers, male and female, Venerable Mary Ward endured opposition as she worked to establish her orders of active apostolic life. But as Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1985, this just means that she conformed herself to Jesus:

All her life was a going toward a mountain chosen by Jesus. Consequently, this life was always more and more a going toward the mountain of the cross, in a double obedience, to her own personal vocation received from the Lord and to His Church, a place appointed by Him in the world. Her life was lived with little apparent success, her death in the obscurity of the cross, and thus she came to share in the power of the Lord, the power of love which illumines the world.

In 1909, during the pontificate of Saint Pius X, the Church finally recognized her founding of the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Venerable Mary Ward, pray for us!

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone attends the mass and imposition of the Pallium upon the new metropolitan archbishops held by Pope Francis for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

A New Era?

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has a profound understanding of what the U.S. bishops have called the preeminent issue of our time, and his stand is courageous.