Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)

Women at the heart of the church

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Studying the Constitutions at the Eco Park

I am in love with this way of life. The more that I learn about the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the deeper I want to go and the more that I find that resonates with the graces I received on retreat. We are currently studying our Constitutions together, taking it section by section. Rather than a series of rules and regulations, the Constitutions read more like a guide for living a full and happy life with God. It’s such a rich document. It relates the history of the Institute as well as setting out the way of life we are called to live.

It amazes me that it was only recently (in the 1980s) that the IBVM was finally able to fulfill Mary Ward’s vision for her ‘least Institute’: to take the same as the Society. Meaning that we have the same Constitutions as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). In her time Mary Ward was only able to go so far as to adapt the summary document of the full Constitutions, the Institutum (adapted and presented to the pope in 1622), but she wasn’t able to get it approved by the Holy See. It was considered quite radical to suggest a community of missionary apostolic women who would engage in spiritual matters. Here’s a selection that outlines the vision and mission of the Institute, although the language we use today to describe the activities of the mission is not quite the same (e.g. we don’t really use words like ‘evil living’ or ‘women of profligate life’ anymore).

From IBVM Constitutions Volume I: Institutum:

1.       … She is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.

  • by helping them be brought back from heresy and evil living to faith and goodness and to a certain special obedience to the Holy See,
  • by gathering together and disposing the people for public preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God,
  • and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of girls and unlettered persons in Christianity,
  • by teaching Catechism and the reverent use of sacred things and by giving that education to them in schools and communities which seem most suitable for the common good of the Church and their own particular good whether they have chosen to spend their lives in the world or in religion;
  • and finally by leading such people to the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful and by disposing them for Confession and the other Sacraments, and by arranging for Preachers and Spiritual Fathers to be send to the country and to the more neglected places;
  • also by seeking out women of profligate life and preparing them to receive grace through the Sacraments so that Doctors, Preachers and Apostolic men of the Church of God may have more leisure to attend to greater and more universal affairs.

Moreover she should show herself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons and hospitals, and indeed to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

Given the restrictions placed on women at the time, I think it’s incredible that Mary Ward and her companions undertook these activities and gave their lives to God out of great love. It took centuries for the Church to fully understand the gift of women’s apostolic congregations and to approve them in the manner that their founders had been divinely inspired. (Praise God for the Second Vatican Council!) Reading our Constitutions provides a mini history lesson as well as a manifestation of the working of the Holy Spirit. The sisters who have gone before me were incredibly tenacious and generous women. They were scorned, misunderstood, and at times manipulated, and yet they continued to strive for Mary Ward’s vision for the Institute.

From Constitutions Volume I: General Examen, Chapter 1:

{1} This least Institute was not brought into being by human means. Mary Ward’s inspiration in 1611 was to take the same of the Society [of Jesus] so understood, as that we were to take the same both in matter and manner, that only excepted which God by diversity of sex hath prohibited. In 1631 Pope Urban VIII ordered the suppression of her Institute. Nevertheless, through the heroic efforts of Mary Ward’s faithful followers, the call to work for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the education of women and girls continued.

…In 1877 the Institute was confirmed by the Holy See; it was not until 1909 that Mary Ward was acknowledged as its founder.

….In the renewal following Vatican Council II, the whole Institute reflected on Mary Ward’s vision and her desire to adopt the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus for her Institute. As a result of this reflection new Constitutions were approved: for the Roman Branch in 1978, for the Irish Branch in 1985, and for the North American Branch in 1986.

In 2009, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the IBVM, a renewed Constitutions was approved by the Holy See. The ‘modern document’, as we refer to it, is an updated version that clarifies certain sections of the Ignatian Constitutions that are no longer valid due to changes in canon law. It is also breathes a beautiful new spirit into the Institute and is written like a piece of poetry.

From Constitutions Volume II: Chapter 1:

1.2 We are companions of Jesus,
women at the heart of the Church,
called to follow Christ
in a discipleship of love,
ready to labour
with freedom and joy,
that in all things God may be glorified.

1.3 The Ignatian tradition,
interpreted through a woman’s eye,
is our graced heritage.
In prayer, Mary Ward was led to see
that this was the way God wanted for her Institute;
this was the pathway to holiness
that she and her companions were to walk.

As I reflect on the Constitutions, I am drawn back to my retreat graces of discipleship and friendship with Jesus. I can see how life in this Institute is my pathway to holiness and that it allows me to live fully the graces I received and as the person I was created to be.

As we continue to study the Constitutions I will write more about them. In this post I’ve basically described some of our history rather than our manner of living so stay tuned for more!

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