24 JANUARY 2009

On 23 January 1985, I attended a special Mass in Rome in the Basilica of St Mary Major.  The main celebrant on that occasion was the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and the occasion was the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the birth of Mary Ward. 

I went along, prompted no doubt, by some clear instructions from within the family. I heard the man, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, thank the Foundress, Mary Ward, and her daughters for four centuries of tireless work, anchored on faith.  Today we are gathered here to thank Mary and her daughters for the tireless work, anchored on faith, which takes place in the 35 Loreto Schools in Ireland.  For today we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Foundation of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto) by Mary Ward in 1609.  We praise and thank God for the life and legacy of Mary Ward. We greet all who benefit from her legacy. Let them realise how fortunate they are and favoured and graced. They are also challenged and obligated to continue her work and to be faithful to her charism.
The story of Mary Ward is as interesting and inspiring today as it was 400 years ago.  It is appropriate that we should celebrate it on the occasion of the annual celebration of Catholic Schools Week. Just consider the huge contribution of Loreto to the noble task of Catholic education on this island.

Mary Ward was born on 23 January 1585 in Yorkshire into a Catholic family.  It was a family that remained loyal to their faith. The first thing that strikes me about Mary Ward is how much she suffered for her faith, for her Church and from the Church.  Her parents had to move from their home frequently in order to avoid heavy fines.  Her life was influenced very much by her parents.  She said, “My parents suffered much for the Catholic cause.”  She recalls the love of her father for the poor, his care for the faith and his fidelity to his friends.  These were virtues which were to be Mary’s also. 

When she was five she was sent to live with her grandmother.  She remembers how she was influenced by her grandmother’s spirit of prayer and her kindness to prisoners.  Mary went, with her grandmother, to visit prisoners who had been imprisoned for their faith.  Her grandmother herself had been imprisoned for the faith.  Mary was very impressed by her grandmother’s spirit of prayer.  She says she never went to sleep or woke up but she found her grandmother at prayer.  Mary stayed with her grandmother from the age of 5 until she was 10. 

Mary prepared for her First Holy Communion when she was living with her aunt. While there Mary heard stories from the maid about her convent life.  She felt desires, deep within her, to follow this way of life.  So, it strikes me just how much she suffered, how much she had to move home and what a struggle she had to make, to find out what God was calling her to do.  I was struck how others influenced her – especially her maternal grandmother – for good.  There is an Association of Grandmothers – founded recently in Ireland to enable grannies to help hand on the faith. 

Each one of us is put in this life on this Earth to do some good. Sometimes it is quite difficult to know what that good is.  Mary Ward practised mortifications and prayers to prepare herself for what God was calling her to do.  She first told those desires to a priest but eventually revealed them to her father. He brought her to see a Jesuit priest in London.  He tried to dissuade her from following a religious way of life, telling her she would do more good for the faith by marrying and bringing up children. 

Later she travelled to France where she met another Jesuit priest who guided her to the Poor Clare Convent. There they were looking for a ‘begging out’ Sister.  She spent nine or ten months there until a Franciscan priest, on visitation, and told her that this way of life was not for her.  She left that Convent and decided she would found a Poor Clare Convent for English girls who wanted to join an English speaking Poor Clare Convent. 

Mary did found a Poor Clare Convent.  She joined it herself, thinking that her dream of spending her life in prayer and her destiny had, at last been, fulfilled.  But Mary still heard an interior voice telling her that she was not called to the way of life of St Clare but to something else. 

Mary then left the Poor Clares that she had founded, and returned to England.  There she set about doing good: 
•    Visiting those imprisoned for their faith,
•    Attending the sick,
•    Helping those who had lapsed from their faith. 

She used to say, “I love to do good to others.”  This was the theme of her life.  She then got a message that what God really wanted her to do was to bring great glory to God.  She was joined by five young companions who were attracted to the work she was doing in London.  Then she fell ill and as she was recovering she received further light that she was to follow the Jesuit Spirituality, caring for faith in the way that they did and taking their rule as far as is possible for women.  She decided that this was her life’s work.  She strove to get this approved despite a lot of opposition from the Church, and even from the Jesuits themselves,

I said that Mary suffered at the hands of the Church – Mary Ward was asking that her sisters would not to be enclosed and that they would have self-governance – two issues unheard of in the Church of her day.  Not alone that but accusations and false rumours were spread about her from England to Rome.  The Roman authorities were insisting that she follow the Laws of Religious of the day and that they should be enclosed. 
Since the Institute refused, their houses and schools in Rome were closed.  This dispute dragged on – Mary was denounced as a heretic and a rebel and she was imprisoned and the Institute was, for a time, suppressed.  Yet Mary told her Sisters to be confident in God – to have no bitterness against the authors of her troubles but to forgive them cordially and entirely, and to pray for their heartily. 

I was fascinated to hear how the name Loreto came about.  It originated in Ireland when the first school was set up, at Archbishop Murray’s request, in Dublin.  Mother Francis Teresa Ball moved into Rathfarnham House on 4th November 1822.  Because there were three of them on that first evening, Mother Teresa decided to call the house ‘Loretto’ after the town in Italy to which the Nazareth house of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was said to have been miraculously transplanted.  The Foundation came about in this way. 

Today I thank God for the legacy of Mary Ward to Ireland and to the Church.  We praise God for Loreto Sisters. They not only continue to be involved in education, they also bring the Good News and healing love of Jesus Christ to people in hospitals, in prison and in seminaries, on all five continents of the planet.

Last October I was at the Synod of Bishop in Rome and I met there the Archbishop of Mauritius.  I enquired about my neighbour, Sister Theresa Clarke.  “Oh she is fine”, he said, “Up and down the parish on her bicycle every week of the year”.

We thank God also for Loreto Sisters like Sister Kathleen O’Brien, working in the formation of students for the priesthood in a seminary run by the Mill Hill Missionaries in Kenya.

Thanks be to God today for the eight new foundations set up in various parts of the world in response to the invitation in 2003 of the General Superior.  They were given “Courage to Move”.  We pray fervently for God’s protection on the three Sisters representing the Irish Province who went to Sudan in February 2006.

Today especially we thank God for the Loreto Sisters here in Ireland and for all others involved in their 35 Loreto Schools up and down the length of Ireland from Letterkenny to Fermoy as teachers, pupils, parents, members of Board of Management.  What an immense contribution they make to our parishes and communities.  May they all continue to care for the faith.  May they, like Mary Ward, devote their best attention to discerning the good that God is calling them to do, here and now, and to actually achieve that good.

I know that they will continue to generously commit their resources and to devote their energies to promoting the dignity and freedom of all.  Mary Ward correctly discerned that she was being called on by God to give glory to God in her own life.  Those who follow her have discerned that they give their highest glory to God when they develop their talents and devote them to giving praise and worship to God.

Such only truly live as are wholly God’s – words of Mary Ward quoted on the Memoriam Card of Sister Agnes Walsh – Superior General of IBVM – 1968-1986.  That great lady, whom it was my privilege to know in Rome from 1980-1986 – and whom I anointed in the casualty department of San Giovanni Hospital, Rome – she was called from this life on 7 January 1986. 

I remember her with love and respect from her visits to the Irish College and from my occasional visits to Casa Loreto Convent to say Mass.  I have her Memoriam Card in my Oratory to remind myself of how much I to owe to Loreto Sisters in many ways and ultimately to Mary Ward – Loreto Cavan – Loreto Crumlin Road – Loreto The Green – Casa Loreto – the links go on and on.  Sure I am nearly a Loreto person myself.  It is yet another example of what they call ‘communion; which links us to one another in the Body of Christ.  Such only truly live as are wholly God’s. 

In the Mass for Martyrs we pray: 

Lord, by imitating the fidelity of this martyr and by your patience,
May we come to share the eternal life you have promised.

Mary Ward was not a martyr but she remained faithful to God through all her sufferings.  She was most attentive to the presence of God in her life – while at the same time not pre-occupied about herself or her own self-interest.  Her example of forgiveness for those who offended her is truly heroic.

May her prayers help all of us to endure all suffering for love of God – while doing all we can to reduce that suffering.
May her example help us to seek God with all our hearts for God alone is the Source of Life.
May her vision, anchored on faith, of promoting full personal and social development in caring Christian communities of learning and teaching, continue to inspire the tireless work of the Daughters of Mary Ward.