God’s Gift of Surprises – Mary Ward, Mother Gonzaga Barry, and the work of Loreto Ministries.
Towards the end of last year, after 24 years of senior leadership roles in Catholic boys’ schools in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, I chose to take an extended sabbatical. Apart from returning home with my family to Melbourne, I was unsure of how I would use this precious gift of rest and renewal. The year has presented many joyous moments. I became a grandfather to a beautiful baby Louis. I spent extended uninterrupted periods with my family. I had the opportunity to read a book and to make walking part of my daily ritual. I have been given the gift of time to work in the garden and see the flowers bloom. I joined the Board of Jesuit Social Services and participated in an organisation that improves the lives of hundreds. Perhaps, the greatest surprise – being asked to gather resources to break open the richness of the Loreto formation framework.
On 8 July 2018, in a Sunday address, Pope Francis said that the Lord invites us to assume an attitude of humble listening and docile waiting because the grace of God often presents itself to us in surprising ways, which don’t line up with our expectations. Back in July, I knew very little of Mary Ward’s life, spirituality, courage and resilience. I knew that the Loreto schools were quality schools, well-led, meticulously organised and achieved excellent results.
It wasn’t until I read the research of Sr Christine Burke IBVM, Sr Mary Wright IBVM, Mary Ryllis Clark and Mary Catherine Elizabeth Chambers, that the extraordinary light of faith that was Mary Ward shone brightly for me. In a world of persecution of Catholics, where women were ignored and treated as second class citizens, Mary Ward bravely and resiliently stood by her vocation to do God’s work. Although challenged by long journeys across Britain and Europe, told to disband her schools, and imprisoned by the Pope for disobedience, her faith allowed her to persevere. What stood up on the page was a woman of deep and strong faith, in essence a contemplative in action. A spirituality and intellect so strong she was ready to grapple with the realities of her day. She possessed the integrity and capacity to see practical solutions to complex problems. She had an extraordinary competence as an educator and an organiser and a determination to integrate women into the active work of the Church in response to very real needs.
Her legacy allowed other women to be inspired by her faith and fortitude. I marvel at the fact that in 1875, at the invitation of Bishop O’Connor of Ballarat, six Sisters headed by Mother Gonzaga Barry left Dublin, came to Ballarat, and started a school within a week of arrival! Mother Gonzaga Barry then initiated plans for further teacher training and more schools in the colony.
I am in awe of these women for their tenacity and quiet confidence to get things done, inspire others to see a need and then be galvanised into action to make the lives of others better. The last few months have allowed me to see the good that can be achieved, both past and present, by those enthused by Mary Ward and her Loreto co-workers. In a current world where inequality, abuse, sexism, climate crisis, pandemic and a Church searching for renewal are all immediate issues, God’s gift of Mary Ward’s charism is a beacon of hope for those seeking confidence and courage to make a difference to our world. It certainly has been a year of welcomed, refreshing and life-giving surprises.