Jan. 23 is the birth date of Venerable Mary Ward (1585 - 1645), founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her idea to found an order of women that was non-enclosed and free of episcopal jurisdiction led to persecution and suppression by church authorities. The following is an excerpt from an article on Mary Ward by Joan Chittister, OSB, that appeared in The Way: Summer 1985.
Mary Ward understood her opposition well. She knew that men considered them radicals, “new beginners of a course never thought of before.” And through it all she persisted. Through the local investigations and complaints, through the accusations and disapproval, through the examinations by the Congregation of Cardinals, through the suppression of the Order, through the house arrest in the convent of Angers. So strong was her faith that women, too, were created in the image of God and that women were no lesser creatures than men that she laid down her own life to release the lives and gifts of other women.
Mary Ward did not prevail, except in part. Though some gains have definitely been made for some women — in education, in legal rights, in social inclusion, in theological developments and pastoral participation — nevertheless most of the poor, most of the hungry, most of the disenfranchised of the world are still women; all of the authorities of the church are still men and the laws still prescribe cloisters, choirs, habits and male approval of women’s religious groups.
The Theology of Limitation is the catechism on women to this day. But Mary Ward does raise both questions and models that will not die. Does God value women as much as Mary Ward did? And if so, why does not the male church?
The answers given to women about the strictures on their gifts when all other answers, intellectual and biological and social, have been given the lie, has always been “tradition.” But the real issue for our time is why is this the tradition? Is the exclusion of women from the administrative, sacramental life of the church because inclusion wasn’t supposed to be or because no one would allow it to be? And isn’t the communal re-emergence of great women who do great things that great men say may not be done by a woman also part of the tradition?
The question is, Why do we never legitimate that part of the tradition? Mary Ward already had the answer. She wrote: “I would to God that all men understood this verity, that women, if they will, may be perfect and if they would not make us believe we can do nothing and that we are but women, we might do great matters.”
It is 400 years later. The spiritual leadership of women depends yet on the witness, the verity, of courageous women. It depends as well on the honesty of conscientious men who will call their own systems to the Gospel truth. Or as a contemporary feminist said, “If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”
Chittister is a Benedictine sister of Erie, Pennsylvania.