In the Papal Bull of 1631, Pastoralis romani pontifices, Urban VIII declared that
In order to contain such great audacity with more strictness and so that these plants that are so harmful to the Church of God might not extend further, we have decreed that they be torn up by their roots…. We decide and decree, with Apostolic authority, that the life style and statutes of the congregation of women and virgins of the so-called ‘Jesuits’ are null and void from the very beginning and without any power and value. And in order to bring this about, with this same authority, we suppress and extinguish them in their roots, completely; we abolish them perpetually and abrogate them. And, in order that all the faithful consider them suppressed, we completely divest those of the aforementioned Congregation or Sect who held offices and responsibilities and we order, in virtue of holy obedience and, under pain of excommunication, that these persons live separately from one another, outside of the colleges and houses where they have lived until now.
Who was responsible for the monstrosity Urban condemned in such harsh terms?
Mary Ward was born on January 23, 1585, into a respected aristocratic Yorkshire family. This was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when English Catholics were driven into hiding, persecuted, often martyred. Two of Ward’s uncles had been implicated in the famous Gunpowder Plot—an attempted assassination of James I. In 1599, the family home was burnt to the ground by rioting mobs. Mary and her two sisters were rescued by their father and Mary was sent to the house of Sir Ralph Babthom at Osgodby-Selby. It was there that, at the age of fifteen, she first felt the call of a religious vocation. She entered the monastery of the Poor Clares at Saint-Omer in northern France. She was later sent as a lay sister to the Spanish Netherlands.
Ward’s ambition was to return to England, where monasteries had been abolished, priests were not tolerated, and lay Catholics lived under constant suspicion. In 1606, she founded a monastery specifically for English women at Saint-Omer in northern France. The community’s rule was very liberal, well adapted to the needs of Catholics in England. It provided both structure and flexibility. The “English Ladies,” as her nuns were called, would not wear a habit or live in a cloister, and they would dedicate themselves to the education of Catholic children and to supporting the local Catholic population in whatever way they could. Mary was, in fact, inspired in all this by the recently established Society of Jesus, and was in contact with Ignatius of Loyola. Members of her new community were even disparagingly called the “Jesuitesses” in some circles. Like the Society of Jesus, Mary hoped her community would not depend on the local bishop but directly on the pope.
Ward’s “rule” was, to say the least, controversial. It went against the statutes that the Council of Trent had established for women’s religious congregations. These required that women religious live cloistered lives, wear a religious habit, pray the Divine Office, and submit to the local bishop. The idea of giving women some of the same apostolic responsibilities that belonged to the male clergy was seen as a radical departure from tradition. So was the proposal that the “English Ladies” be self-governing. In brief, the Ladies were proposing a new form of religious life that threatened male supremacy.