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