This week sees a happy ending to a 400-year long struggle to find acceptance for the dream of a Catholic Yorkshirewoman, Mary Ward. The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the religious congregation she founded in 1609 on the Jesuit model has received papal approval to change its name to the Congregation of Jesus. Mary, whose family were recusants, outlaw Catholics living under persecution in England, believed herself called to start an order for women as 'contemplatives in action', doing good works in the world beyond the cloister. This contradicted the Council of Trent's insistence that religious women be strictly enclosed. Supported by John Gerard, an English Jesuit who famously escaped from the Tower of London after prolonged torture, her first sisters aimed to live by the Jesuit Constitutions, call themselves the Society of Jesus and model themselves on the mobility and missionary focus of Jesuits while remaining independent from them. In a society and a church unprepared for such emancipation, she taught that 'there is no such difference between men and women, that women may not do great things'. Dubbed 'The English Ladies', Mary Ward and her sisters were admired for their fervour, but a priest of the time said: 'when all is done, they are but women', and their new venture was therefore bound to fail. Mary repeated her faith 'that women in time to come will do much'. Communities and schools sprang up from London all across Europe. Mary walked over the Alps to Rome amid the Thirty Years War and outbreaks of plague, to present her new plan to the Pope. But her repeated attempts to persuade him failed, and Urban VIII issued a Bull of Suppression against Mary Ward's fledgling congregation as a risk to the moral and intellectual fragility of women. She was imprisoned as a 'heretic, rebel and schismatic' in 1631, the same year as Galileo was condemned. Mary died in York in 1645 during the English Civil War surrounded by her few remaining companions. They continued to live under her inspiration, but a much-diluted form of the Jesuit Constitutions was only permitted on condition that the 'English Ladies' repudiated Mary Ward as foundress. Many more women's congregations would later emerge on Ignatian lines with less dramatic consequences, but it took nearly 300 years to gain final Papal approval of Mary Ward's plan, and it was not until 1979 that the Jesuit Constitutions could be adopted. Even then, reference to women as spiritual directors, and the Jesuit characteristics of a vow of direct obedience to the Pope for the sake of mission were not permitted. In 2003 it became possible to adopt the full Constitutions and with them a form of the name Mary Ward originally envisaged. In the same year the North American and Irish branches of the order amalgamated under the title IBVM Loreto. We still have a long way to go before everyone shares Mary Ward's dream of a more inclusive church, but for us this is at least a step in the right direction.
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