Women religious like Teresa Forcades, the Benedictine nun from Montserrat, the Dominican Lucia Caram and the Teresian Viqui Molins have garnered notoriety for different reasons, as have the blogger Gemma Morató (Dominican of the Presentation) and Twitterer Xiskya Valladares (a Pureza de María sister), among others.
Several elements come together in the interest of the media about these women of the Church, according to the Claretian Màxim Muñoz, president of the Unió de Religiosos de Catalunya (Union of Religious of Catalonia - URC). "They are religious women who break the mold of women who are submissive and apart from the world," he argues. They appear as very free and committed women, especially to the most disadvantaged sectors of society, with a critical edge of both social and ecclesial denunciation." Another glaring example: the Carmelite missionary Brígida Moreta, who has promoted online the acclaimed initiative #apartheidsanitariono, against the People's Party government's plan to leave undocumented immigrants without health cards.
There are several women religious in the limelight in Spain, but the one who could be considered the initiator of the phenomenon, Teresa Forcades, has become -- perhaps reluctantly -- the mediagenic nun par excellence. "Forcades' value has been to break clichés," points out Eulàlia Tort, journalist and author of the book-interview Converses amb Teresa Forcades ("Conversations with Teresa Forcades" -- Dau, 2012). "For many people, the "little nuns" (monjitas), as they're often called, are people with a big heart but little formal education, set apart from the world and with no interest whatsoever in participating in the public debate. This concept of the monjita conceals a certain paternalism."
Forcades explodes that stereotype not only because of her academic credentials, but also because "her commitment to service leads her to actively participate in social debate," Tort states, "and her faith allows her to speak freely, since she has no servility, either to political parties or economic groups." Among other things, Forcades has attacked the avian flu vaccine, proclaimed her sympathy for Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, and supported the independence movement in Catalonia.
Juan Jose Tamayo, director of the department of Theology and Religious Science at the University Carlos III of Madrid, attributes the interest aroused by these women religious to the fact that they "publicly express their views on issues that transcend the field of religion -- political, social, economic, medical ones -- knowledgeably because of their training and life experiences." Tamayo, who is also general secretary of the Asociación de Teólogos y Teólogas Juan XXIII, sees added value in the fact that "such public positions taken are not exactly accommodating to the authorities, but on the contrary, are characterized by a critical sense and tone of denunciation, and that is rare in the life of women religious." A common feature is that they all have the support of their superiors general and, naturally, of their congregations too.
The nuns who pass through the media show themselves to be good communicators, well versed in language and technology. "The religious figure in television and radio works, in information and in fiction," adds theologian and journalist Miriam Díez Bosch, director of the Observatorio Blanquerna de Comunicación, Religión y Cultura. They are figures who are warm and very distant at the same time; they live radically, dress differently, are in a predominantly male structure and are noted for their freshness and freedom of thought. They let us glimpse a different time, a rhythm that is very much their own." For Eulàlia Tort, they are "authentic women, since their lives and their work are driven by a radical fidelity to the Gospel, and that authenticity is baffling in a time of crisis." Hence perhaps their discreet charm.
Teresa Forcades: "They say you're not faithful to your vocation"
Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades i Vila (Barcelona, 1966), theologian and doctor of medicine, burst into the media universe three years ago when she criticized the pharmaceutical industry. Since then, her views are reflected by the media. Forcades believes that there, with respect to priests and men religious, "being a nun is an advantage. The current hierarchical Church doesn't feel represented by a nun as it does by a priest or a male religious." According to the Benedictine nun, that means that if there is controversy over the words of a nun, "it's not given as much importance in the governing bodies of the ecclesiastical institution and there is less censorship." Being in the media has its costs: "They might tell you you're not faithful to your vocation, as if your vocation couldn't include public demonstrations or participation in public debates. The private/public dividing line that traditional societies have considered parallel to the feminine/masculine dividing line still prevails in the Church."
About the public sphere, Forcades warns of exclusive secularism that denies public space to religion. "That's impossible for Christianity because according to Christianity, God identifies with those who suffer social injustice," she argues. "A Christian should always be engaged in social and public life, and that can lead to appearing in the media." And, according to her, inclusive secularism requires people of faith to participate in the debates, while respecting the beliefs of others and not seeking to impose themselves." Forcades recalls that "the ideal of monastic life is to perform all activities without breaking the rhythm of the liturgy of the hours, to keep the balance of ora et labora of Benedictine monasteries." In her case, and with her agenda, it's hard. As has been done throughout history, they use community discernment. "Whether I have to do them or not, according to whatever activities, we decide in community," she concludes.
Viqui Molins: "The society values social action"
A Teresian at heart, Viqui Molins Gomila (Barcelona, 1936) became famous when the movie director Javier Fesser, who was freely inspired by a book by Molins for his film Camino, mentioned her during the Goya Awards Gala in 2009. Her work in the prisons and with disadvantaged people in the Raval had made her known on television. She was recently a host on El convidat on TV3. Without wanting to generalize, she says that "secularized society values social action wherever it comes from, but if you give a compelling reason for the faith that moves you to do what you do, it not only respect it, but understands and even admires it, so long as there's no great animosity towards faith." When that happens, Molins attributes it to "people who have had a negative formative experience about God, that isn't the one Jesus showed us, full of understanding, love and mercy." For the Teresian nun, who studied philosophy at the University of Barcelona, "love is the most understandable language. No wonder we can say that God is love, and where there is love there is no God."
On the possibility that nuns at street level and in the media might give an idea of a parallel Catholic Church, she said she wouldn't want to encourage that. "I love the Church of Jesus a lot, and by that, I mean the community of believers in his Good News, that he sent us to preach throughout the world as disciples, from our poverty and weakness," she argues. If at times the Church is shown to be otherwise, regrettably, there will be many people who speak of two Churches, contrasting them. Let's hope that the Church is increasingly a community of believers rather than a dominating structure, if that is what it is or seems to be." Viqui's examples: "Cardinal Martini, Casaldàliga, and Monseñor Romero..."
Xiskya Valladares: "Twittering is a great opportunity"
Blogger, journalist, photographer and Twitterer Xiskya Valladares, a sister in the Pureza de María, believes that "the Catholic Church needs feminine sensibility, and for it to be seen in the media that women have a place in the Church, which they have always had but it was less public." She says that "we nuns ourselves haven't taken advantage of opportunities, out of fear, submission or lack of habit," and that is now changing. "Of course, there must be some who are the first to break out, like racing cyclists," she jokes. Born in Leon (Nicaragua) 43 years ago, Lucia Xiskya Paguaga Valladares has lived more than 20 years in Spain and now resides in Palma de Mallorca, where she teaches at the Centre d’Ensenyament Superior Alberta Giménez (Cesag), which bears the name of the Mallorcan founder of the Pureza de María order. Valladares, who has a degree in Spanish Philology and a masters in Management of Education Centers from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Journalism from the San Pablo-CEU University in Madrid, with studies in theology in Rome and Granada, became known in the journalism world through her chronicles of the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid.
Since then, she has been very present in the social networks. They call her the Twittering nun. Each night, she signs off with the hashtag #arezaryadormir and observes that "for some twitterers it's like a return; they tell me that seeing a face in a habit reminds them of something positive." The sisters of her congregation wear habits, but can take them off for pastoral or family reasons. "If I go to a press conference on a subject that's not Catholic, I take it off so I don't clash," she says. She has felt like leaving Twitter "because of the trolls who insult you, but all the others are very worth it." On the presence of women religious in the media, Valladares says that "priests are more singled out and marked by the pedophilia issue, and nuns now have more credibility." However, she also has been touched. "I've been called a robabebés ("cradle robber")," she says,"so current information has a lot of influence."
Lucia Caram: "It's essential to be in social networks"
Lucia Caram, an Argentinian contemplative Dominican and theologian, who has been based in Catalonia for 18 years, performs social work in Manresa through her convent and the Rosa Oriol Foundation. She has just published a book, Mi claustro es el mundo ("My cloister is the world" -- Plataforma, 2012), is present on radio and television, and is very active in social networks, especially Twitter. "I'm of the Order of Preachers -- the Dominicans; today, we would say 'the Communicators'," argues Sister Lucia. I have a life to share and communicate, and I like to be in tune with people, meet them where they are, so it's essential now to be in social networks and listening to the heartbeat of the people to share the exciting adventure of life." How is this activity viewed by secularized society? "I don't know if that's more appealing to society or not. I do know that it's a way to speak the language of the people and be closer to their hopes, their anxieties, to what's in their hearts ... I could not be here today otherwise."
Lucía Caram Padilla (Tucumán, 1966), who studied theology in her native Argentina and completed her training in Torrent (Valencia), supports the independence movement in Catalonia. Sister Lucia elaborates on how some men in the Church react to the new media visibility of the women religious. "There's a right wing and a den here that's a minority but it's very well organized, and because of their morbid radicalism, they're listened to less and less. They get very nervous and are intolerant," Caram says. "Among the more official ranks there are also those who are fighting to reach the spheres of power, and they are sexist and misogynistic, but the truth is that I care less and less about them. They will remain alone, because their discourse is so irrelevant and absurd that it falls on its own inconsistency."