The Outspoken Spanish Nun Who's Made Herself A Political Force

The Outspoken Spanish Nun Who's Made Herself A Political Force

11:12am Sep 26, 2014
Sister Teresa Forcades prays over the graves of fellow nuns in a cemetery at her Sant Benet Monastery in Montserrat, Spain.
Sister Teresa Forcades prays over the graves of fellow nuns in a cemetery at her Sant Benet Monastery in Montserrat, Spain.
Lauren Frayer for NPR
  • Sister Teresa Forcades prays over the graves of fellow nuns in a cemetery at her Sant Benet Monastery in Montserrat, Spain.

    Sister Teresa Forcades prays over the graves of fellow nuns in a cemetery at her Sant Benet Monastery in Montserrat, Spain.

    Lauren Frayer for NPR

  • Sister Teresa Forcades stands in front of an olive tree she planted on Jan. 1, 1997 — the day she took her vows to become a Benedictine nun. Back then, the tree was just a sapling, but it has matured during her 17 years at the monastery and now bears fr

    Sister Teresa Forcades stands in front of an olive tree she planted on Jan. 1, 1997 — the day she took her vows to become a Benedictine nun. Back then, the tree was just a sapling, but it has matured during her 17 years at the monastery and now bears fr

    Lauren Frayer for NPR

It's easy to find Teresa Forcades in the crowd at Barcelona's airport. She's wearing a nun's habit.

Sister Forcades is Spain's most famous living nun. She's a medical doctor with a master's degree from Harvard. She's a feminist who's been reprimanded by the Vatican for supporting abortion rights. She's a Benedictine nun in a country where the Catholic Church has historically sided with fascists.

And she's hugely popular.

Forcades has emerged as one of the leaders of Europe's new left wing. At the height of Spain's economic crisis, she started a new political movement, Proces Constituent, which calls on the Spanish government to leave the eurozone, nationalize all banks and grant freedom to Catalonia — the wealthy, northeast region of Spain from which Forcades hails.

With a frenetic schedule of speaking engagements, Forcades was in Spain for just five hours one recent afternoon, on her way home from a left-wing political conference in Croatia and before jetting off to teach feminist theology in Germany. NPR arranged to meet her at the airport, give her a lift and interview her en route to her monastery on the sacred Montserrat mountain north of Barcelona.

Navigating a hilly switchback road, I asked about her lectures in Germany: Isn't feminist Catholic theology an oxymoron?

Sister Teresa Forcades stands in front of an olive tree she planted on Jan. 1, 1997 — the day she took her vows to become a Benedictine nun. Back then, the tree was just a sapling, but it has matured during her 17 years at the monastery and now bears fruit.

Sister Teresa Forcades stands in front of an olive tree she planted on Jan. 1, 1997 — the day she took her vows to become a Benedictine nun. Back then, the tree was just a sapling, but it has matured during her 17 years at the monastery and now bears fruit.

Lauren Frayer for NPR

"That's what I thought as a teenager!" Forcades exclaims. "Because many of the messages that still today the Catholic Church gives to the world — in terms of rights of women, sexual morality and contraception — conflict directly with the historical achievements of the feminist movement. [The church] is an institution in which patriarchy is rampant. All the decision-making is linked to something called ordination, and ordination is linked to something called gender," she says with an ironic smile. "So it's clear that I did not join the church because I thought as an institution it's wonderful for a feminist!"

Instead, she says, she ended up in the clergy as a fluke. Born in 1966 to an atheist family in Catalonia, Forcades went to medical school in Barcelona and then did her residency at a hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. She eventually went on to get a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in public health. But in the summer of 1995, she was just looking for a quiet place to study for her U.S. medical board exams.

"That's how I arrived in July 1995 at what is now my home, not with the intention to become a nun, but the intention to prepare for my medical boards in the United States," she says, laughing.

But she never left. Forcades describes her experience of reading the Bible for the first time as "a commotion."

"It was something that touched me very deeply — one of those experiences that are impossible to explain," she says. Two years after arriving at the Sant Benet Monastery in Monserrat, she took her vows to become a Benedictine nun.

Since then, she has lived at the same monastery, practicing medicine, singing and praying at church services several times a day and combining her passion for God with her passion for social justice.

"I was listening yesterday to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. on the Vietnam War. It's so impressive! I can listen to him forever. Because it's so to the point, and it's so respectful and so full of common sense," she says. "You just listen to him, and feel, 'Yeah!' You want to shout like they do in Baptist churches. 'Yeah, sister, brother, yeah! Just go for it!' "

Forcades' latest crusade is for Catalan independence. She has become one of the most prominent faces of the secessionist movement in Catalonia, which seeks to break away from Spain and form its own country in Europe.

"I am in favor of the independence of my country, because I do believe that for true democracy to be real or possible, you need small political units," she says, offering the example of the U.S., in which many powers are devolved to the state rather than federal level.

"I want to avoid what unfortunately has been so prevalent for the Catalans. We complain to our local government, the Catalan government, and the local government says, 'Yeah, you are right, but you know what? It's Madrid's fault.' OK, so we go to Madrid, and Madrid says, 'Yes, you're right, but you know what? It's Brussels' fault,' " she says. "I don't like growing huge empirelike structures that are removed from the people."

Forcades is a frequent commentator on Spanish TV. That's where a few years ago, she voiced her support for abortion rights — on live TV. A letter of reprimand swiftly arrived from the Vatican. And Forcades wrote back, posing a philosophical question to the Vatican in response.

"So let's imagine you have a father and the father has a compatible kidney, and you have a child, an innocent child, who needs the kidney. Is the church ready to force the father to give the kidney, to save the child's life?" she says, recounting her reply to the Vatican. "That the right to life of the child takes precedence over the right to self-determination to his own body, of the father? And that was my question I sent to Rome in 2009."

She received no reply back. So for now, Sister Teresa remains very much part of the church — and proud to sometimes disagree with it.

On a tour of her monastery, perched on a mountain over Barcelona, with the serrated peaks of Monserrat mountain beside it, Forcades points to a special olive tree.

"This is the olive tree that my friends — members of an ecologist group to which I belonged as a teenager — gave me when I did my first vows [to become a nun]. They gave me this little trunk of a tree, barely 6 inches tall, and we planted it here at the monastery," she says wistfully. "And now it's 17 years old. As you can see, it's bearing fruit."

So is Teresa's work. Her home region of Catalonia plans to vote this fall on whether to break away from Spain.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Spain, the northeast region of Catalonia is weighing a breakup - whether to form its own country in Europe. And we're about to meet a popular leader of the pro-independence movement. She's a Benedictine nun. Lauren Frayer sent us this profile after catching up with her during a quick layover.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I can spot Teresa Forcades immediately at the airport. She's wearing a nun's habit.

FRAYER: Hello, Sister Teresa.

TERESA FORCADES: Nice to meet you.

FRAYER: Nice to meet you.

Sister Teresa is just back from a left-wing political conference in Croatia. She's on the ground in Spain for just five hours before jetting off to teach feminist theology in Germany. So I give her a lift to her monastery on the sacred Montserrat mountain, north of Barcelona.

FORCADES: So now we are driving to what is the most important pilgrim monastery in Europe.

FRAYER: Forcades is probably Europe's most favorite living nun. She's a medical doctor with a master's from Harvard. She's a feminist who's been reprimanded by the Vatican for her views on abortion. She's a left-wing, Benedictine nun in a country where the Catholic Church has historically sided with fascists; and she's hugely popular here.

FORCADES: Many of the messages that still today the Catholic Church gives to the world in terms of rights of women, in terms of sexual morality and contraception - and the fact that it's an institution in which patriarchy is rampant. So it's clear that I did not join the church because I thought as an institution that it was the most wonderful for a feminist.

FRAYER: But this monastery is where Teresa ended up after medical school, merely searching for a quiet place to study for exams. She describes an awaking she had there.

FORCADES: That was something that touched me very deeply - one of those experiences that are impossible to explain.

FRAYER: So she took vows as a nun. At the monastery she sings in the choir, practices medicine and combines her passion for God and social justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORCADES: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: At the height of Spain's economic crisis, Sister Teresa founded a political movement, calling for Spain to quit the euro, nationalized banks and let Catalonia - her home region, which has long-sought independence from Spain - form its own small country in Europe.

FORCADES: I am in favor of the independence of my country because I do believe that for true democracy to be real, or possible, you need small political units. Now I just break for a second because you need to rest. We are doing very well.

FRAYER: Another concern is preserving her language. Teresa grew up stealthily speaking Catalan, a language banned through the 1970s under Spain's then dictator Francisco Franco.

FORCADES: So many generations before me, they have been writing poetry in this language. They have been insulting each other in this language, fighting in this language and making jokes in this language.

FRAYER: Sister Teresa is a regular commentator on Spanish TV, where a few years ago she voiced her support for abortion rights. And a reprimand letter swiftly arrived from the Vatican. She wrote back with a philosophical question.

FORCADES: So let's imagine that you have a father and the father has a compatible kidney and you have a child - that's an innocent child - that needs a kidney. OK, is the church ready to force the father to give the kidney to save the child's life? That the right to life of the child takes precedence over the right to self -determination of his own body, of the father? And that was my question that I sent to Rome in 2009.

FRAYER: What did they say?

FORCADES: No answer.

FRAYER: Perhaps the Vatican recognizes how popular Sister Teresa is. At the monastery there's a group of twenty-something women here to study for their exams, just like Teresa was 20 years ago. I ask if there's a chance they'll stay like she did.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's not our story.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's not our case.

FRAYER: As Sister Teresa shows me around she points to an olive tree.

FORCADES: This is the olive tree that my friends - the ecologist group to whom I belonged as a teenager, when I did my first vows - they gave me this little trunk, right?

FRAYER: And it was, like, six inches tall.

FORCADES: Exactly. And we plant it here at the monastery. And now it's 17 years old, and as you can see, it's bearing fruits.

FRAYER: And so is Teresa's work. Her home region of Catalonia plans to vote this fall on whether to break away from Spain. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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