Faith means Trusting in Truth more than Power
Written by: Lisa Kelly
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In first grade I was taught by a little old nun who was barely a foot taller than the rest of my classmates. She managed to not only control, but engage a classroom of 35 first graders (unheard of in today’s teacher-student ratios) with mere strength of character rather than voice or discipline. This was in a Catholic school in Ohio run by two other women religious. They lived in the convent, got by on very little income (nothing near what the lay women teachers were paid), and were still expected to do the priests’ laundry and clean the rectory (even in the 1970s.) They taught me far more by their dedication to the Church and their personal faith in Jesus Christ and their direct care of me and my fellow three-foot-somethings than any priest-delivered homilies ever could in my elementary years. They embedded in me my image of a woman of faith—what would be the measuring stick of my life and dedication to God.
These incredible women who shaped me were themselves shaped by the “radical feminist agenda” of a woman who lived centuries before them, who was thrown in jail for her heresy. Mary Ward, who was raised in England when Catholics were being persecuted in the late 1500’s (about a century after Ignatius was born in Spain), felt called by God to start an order of women who followed closely in the footsteps of the Society of Jesus (so much so, they were mockingly called by many “the Jesuitesses.”) She espoused the radical thought that women could serve God by actively caring for those in need in society rather than just through cloistered contemplative prayer. Instead of being locked behind walls, her order, which came to be known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), opened schools for girls, visited prisoners, and secretly cared for persecuted Catholics. For Mary, this wasn’t just her own idea. She truly felt it was the Truth of God speaking to her. In the early 1600’s, this was definitely a radical feminist theology. To many males in power at the time, it was scandalous that nuns would not maintain the behavior proscribed by the hierarchy. Mary freely came before the Council of Cardinals in 1629 to plead her case for serving God as she felt women were uniquely called to do. Her pleas fell on the deaf ears of the male hierarchy and Mary was imprisoned for a short time and her order officially suppressed in 1630.
Had Mary’s faith been in those in power at the time, that would have been the end of story, just a silly, long forgotten girl from England who thought she knew more than the Cardinals in Rome. But Mary’s faith was in the Truth of her experience of God. While she never lived to see it, dying in 1645, the Truth of Mary Ward’s vision was accepted by the Pope 232 years later in 1877 with the recognition of her order. That Truth is more obvious today than ever with the IBVM religious communities thriving with 3000+ members in 44 countries across five continents, serving countless thousands in need, not to mention the many other orders of women religious who have gone on to serve far beyond the walls of a cloister. In May of 2009, Mary Ward’s cause for canonization moved forward based on her “heroic virtue” as unanimously confirmed by theologians and approved by Cardinals, Bishops, and even Pope Benedict himself.
As I reflect on the story of Mary Ward and on the many other women religious who have shaped my spiritual journey (including my own spiritual director), I am left to ponder if I am worthy of them. Am I willing to live in such a way as to seek to serve “the greater glory of God” even if doing so respectfully challenges the powers that be? Am I willing to live now and even suffer for a Truth that may not be realized for 232 years? Perhaps that is exactly what it means to have faith at all.
Photo: “Mary Ward” From the Mary Ward Facebook page