Religious women today facing the disapproval and scrutiny of officials in Rome might take some consolation from the life of the Venerable Mary Ward, founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known in the United States as the Loreto sisters. In the 17th century, when she wanted to form an unenclosed order of women, she was too far ahead of her time. Rome not only balked at the idea, but at one point accused her of heresy.
Recognition of her efforts came slowly. On Dec. 19, Pope Benedict declared her venerable, an early step on the way to sainthood.
A news release follows:
On 19th December 2009 His Holiness Benedict XVI formally promulgated the Decree recognising the ‘heroic virtue’ demonstrated by Mary Ward and thereby conferring on her the title ‘Venerable’. Her cause will now go forward to the next stage in the process towards beatification and eventual canonization. Mary Ward (1585-1645) was an Englishwoman from Yorkshire who felt called by God to found a congregation of apostolic, non-enclosed religious women along the model of the Society of Jesus. She spent many years in Rome petitioning the Pope to recognise her new congregation, but in 1631 her order was suppressed and Mary Ward herself accused of heresy. No charges were ever brought but she remained under the shadow of the Inquisition in Rome and her congregation was disbanded. Mary Ward’s ideal of an active congregation of religious women serving the needs of the Church was too advanced for her time. She suffered at the hands of authorities who in different circumstances might have recognised the need for such a congregation. Only in 1877 was her congregation recognised by the Church and only in 1909 was Mary Ward allowed to be named as foundress.
Mary Ward’s foundation exists today worldwide under the names Congregatio Jesu and Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto) with about 3,000 members. The sisters are in forty-four countries across five continents.
The cause for Mary Ward’s canonization was opened in 1929. The historical research was begun by Fr Grisar SJ and completed by Sr Immolata Wetter CJ accompanied by the Postulator Fr Paul Molinari SJ and the Relator Fr Peter Gumpel SJ. This was accepted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 1995. The theologians completed their investigation in May 2009 and recommended unanimously that Mary Ward demonstrated ‘heroic virtue’ and that her cause should go forward. This was confirmed by the commission of Cardinals and Bishops in November 2009 and subsequently by the Pope.