For thousands of years the serrated peaks of Montserrat have been a sacred destination for pilgrims exploring their interior mountains and climbers scaling jagged peaks. Being neither pilgrims nor climbers, we simply wanted to see the Benedictine Abbey and hike in the national park. We didn’t know that Montserrat is the home of Sister Teresa Forcades, Spain’s most famous nun, her name usually preceded by the word “radical.”
Sister Teresa is a medical doctor who also holds a PhD in public health, a doctorate in theology and a master’s degree from Harvard, a feminist reprimanded by the Vatican for supporting abortion rights, a social activist, a Benedictine nun in a country where the Catholic Church has historically sided with fascists, and one of the most prominent advocates of Catalonia’s secessionist movement to break away from Spain and form its own European country.
Why hadn’t we heard about Sister Teresa? (A) Because guidebooks and online tourist sites are patriarchal (B) Because they think tourists are more interested in stories like the miracles attributed to the abbey‘s Black Madonna (C) Because our research fell short (D) All of the preceding. Bingo if you chose (D).
Why would she choose this abbey fifty kilometres northwest of Barcelona?
On the Camino, the world’s most famous pilgrimage, Santa Maria de Montserrat is Spain’s second most famous church after Santiago de Compostela. In a stunning location where the Romans erected a temple dedicated to Venus, chapels were built by monks in 880, their hermitage expanded into a monastery five centuries later, a printing press added, a choir introduced. The Montserrat hermit Bernal Boil was an early “influencer,” escalating the monastery’s popularity when he travelled to America with Christopher Columbus.
Napoleon and his troops sacked the place in 1811 and soon after the monks lost all their property under the Land Acts. The monastery was reduced to one resident monk. But in 1844 the monks returned and rebuilt the ancient basilica. They resisted Franco’s dictatorship, hiding hundreds of people who were fleeing the regime. For that, more than 20 monks were executed, but the autonomous government of Catalonia saved Montserrat from looting and destruction.
To reach Montserrat, Magellan and I took the Yellow Cable Car, a funicular older than us. Operating since 1930, its ride up a 45% incline takes only five minutes.
Dazzling in colour and artistry the lanterns on the walls of Santa Maria, gifts from abbeys around Spain, were our favourite ornamentation.
Drawn away from the hubbub of la Plaça to the trails in the national park, we hiked up to Santa Cova, the ancient caves where for centuries the monks have retreated spend their last days on earth. With its historical spirituality and eternal views, Santa Cova was the highlight of our visit.
A hundred Benedictine monks live at the abbey, living a quiet life of silent prayer for five hours a day and assorted work for another six hours. About three dozen of them are women.
In 1997 at the age of thirty-one Teresa Forcades took her vows. But first she tested the other nuns by giving a talk about gay Catholics who celebrated their sexuality as a gift from God. The nuns responded with compassion, encouraging her to join them as a public intellectual and continue her studies beyond her degree in medicine. In 2005 Sister Teresa earned a PhD in Public Health and in 2008 a doctorate in Theology, with honours.
But why the life of a nun to effect change, especially when you’ve got several medical degrees?
It is her calling.
“Historically,” she has told reporters, “women often enjoyed greater freedom behind convent walls than in the real world.”
While nuns aren’t known for taking on the church, Sister Teresa has pierced to the “completely sinful” as she calls it.
The Roman Catholic church, which is my church, is misogynist and patriarchal in its structure. That needs to be changed as quickly as possible.
In an interview, Nancy Fornaseiro asked Sister Teresa if she had any hope for this change:
I hope that eventually there will be, but I have no clue. I’ve studied theology and the history of the church—just when you think the Holy Spirit is going to break through, suddenly something happens and you find out—oh wait! Only a thousand more years. So who knows? Besides, this question is not what motivates me.
What motivates her is a contemplative approach to find answers to earthly issues: inequality provoked by ruthless capitalism, public health, poverty, the privatization of public services, the trend to homogenization, religious corruption, decriminalization of abortion, the rights of same-sex couples. She became a feminist before becoming a nun, but says, “I am a feminist thanks to the study of theology, of feminist liberation theology.”
Fearless, she wants us to know that every year 800,000 women are trafficked across borders and forced into prostitution, half of them underage, and that Goldman Sachs had a 16% share in the biggest forum for sex trafficking under-age girls in the United States. That in some of the main texts in Buddhism women are transformed into men to achieve illumination. That the WHO for the last twenty years has depended more on extraordinary donations from private funds (like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Coca Cola’s Foundation whose money comes attached to conditions) than on contributions from its member states. “Unfortunately, taking care of a diseased person has turned into a business,” she says. I wonder what she thinks about COVID-19 equipment, treatment and vaccinations?
Why did she choose the Catholic Church?
Perhaps she feels that is where the most change needs to occur. She often speaks about how the Catholic Church, unlike the scientific community, has done a good job of preserving the memory and accomplishments of women. Women who back in the 13th century fought the frocked clergy for social justice, women she has often written about. Criticizing the scientific community’s record on acknowledging the contributions of women, she cites Watson & Crick falsely getting all the credit for discovering DNA until the “rediscovering” that Rosalind Franklin was responsible for the crystallographic picture of DNA. And the “rediscovering” that Bryon’s daughter, the mathematician Augusta Ada King, advised Charles Babbage on his proposed Analytical Engine—the great-grandfather of our desktop computers. “The Catholic church isn’t the worst place to be,” she says.
Sister Teresa sees a structural link between population size and democracy and supports the independence of Catalonia ‘s 7.5 million inhabitants.
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.
In 2013, she and the economist Arcadi Oliveres launched a manifesto that co-founded a movement for grass-roots mobilization to prepare the country for a Constituent Assembly. It called for a platform of political measures, including “decent housing for everyone,” “expropriation of private banks,” “abolition of current immigration laws,” “public media under democratic control, including the internet”and “a Catalonia outside NATO.” in 2015 she received permission to be exclaustrated (don’t you love that word?) for three years to participate more fully in the political process.
Your life is not a proxy,” Sister Teresa urges us. “There’s an urgency to give meaning to your life. What are you doing here?
Caledron, Veronica. “‘A couple in love is that and nothing more’: Teresa Forcades.” Magis. Oct 1, 2016.
Detloff, Dean. “The radical Benedictine sister who fought Catalan independence.” American Magazine. July 11, 2019.
Forcades, Dr. Teresa. She has written three books: The Crimes of Big Pharmaceutical Companies (Cuadernos Cristianisme i Justícia, 2006, available free online at bit.ly/Libro_Forcades); Feminist Theology in History (Fragmenta, 2007; and Faith and Freedom (2016) in which she discusses four elements—medicine, theology, monasticism, and politics—that she combines into her busy and fruitful life. She’s also on YouTube.
Fornasiero, Nancy. “Interview with Sister Teresa Forcades.” Broadview. October 1, 2017.
Frayer, Lauren. “The Outspoken Spanish Nun Who’s Made Herself a Political Force.” NPR. September 9, 2014.
McKiernan, Ruairí. “Love and Courage Podcast with Sister Teresa Forcades. “May 13, 2018.
Murphy, Francis. “Independent Thinking: Sr Teresa Forcades.” Jesuits in Britain.
Tremlett, Giules. “Keeping up with Teresa Forcades, a nun on Nun on a mission.” The Guardian. May 17, 2013.
Wells, Matt. “Sister Teresa Forcades: Europe’s most radical nun.” BBC News. September 14, 2013.