05/11/2006, 00.00
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Ambassador Tou: Why I became Catholic

by Bernardo Cervellera
In an interview with AsiaNews, the ambassador of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the Vatican explains what distinguishes Christianity from other religions and describes the different approaches to religious freedom of Taipei and Beijing.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The moral élan of Confucianism was insufficient to bring joy and Buddhist mediation failed to overcome solitude, said Chou Seng Tou, ambassador of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the Vatican. In Christianity he discovered a direct rapport with God and encountered the exemplary life of many people.  For these reasons Mr Chou was baptised on April 17. Since then he is a "new person" and now he wants to work for religious freedom in China.

"There is a great difference between Taiwan and China on the issue of religious freedom," he said. In Taiwan there is a clear demarcation between state and religion. I told my chiefs that I had become a Christian only after my baptism. Getting baptised was my personal decision. Had I been an ambassador of the People's Republic of China I would have been recalled immediately and perhaps landed in jail."

Mr Tou was baptised by Mgr Javier Echevarria Rodriguez from the Opus Dei in his sant'Eugenio parish church. Mgr Giovanni Lajolo, the Holy See's "foreign minister" and other luminaries from the Vatican and Rome's diplomatic corps attended the ceremony.

How did you come to the Catholic faith?

In the past I always had ties to the Christian world, especially Protestantism. When I was in high school I often went to a Protestant school and sang in the choir. I remember when I was 15 I went to summer camp with them. When it was time to leave a camp leader asked us to step forwards if we were "touched" by the holiday. My friend pushed me forward but I had not been touched at all and that summer holiday had not made me any happier or given me greater peace.

In 1962 I got married in a Catholic church because my wife is Catholic and from time to time I went to church with her more out of courtesy than faith.

Now I understand that everything is part of God's plan, including my appointment as ambassador of the Republic of China to the Holy See. Taking up residence in Rome led me learn more about the Catholic Church, and just before I came here I made long visits to communities and institutions of the Catholic Church in Taiwan, making the tour of all the dioceses. Wherever I went I was struck and became excited about what I saw, about the style, work and dedication of priests and nuns.

What touched you the most?

I remember a hospital for the elderly run by nuns. Patients could not even shift around and needed help to move, even for their basic physiological needs. I went inside the rooms and was struck by the cleanliness, the lack of any bad odour, the people at peace, the lack of sadness in their faces, cared with great love. A 90-year-old nun had baked a cake for me. During the visit she offered to carry it because it was "too heavy"; such lovely courtesy in such an old person. Then there is the example of wife's love; she is the "Catholic" I meet everyday. All this opened my eyes to what peace of mind and joy can bring. Finally, I understood that it is the Holy Spirit that dwells in us that brings this peace.

Another factor that struck me was the saints. The Catholic Church has many saints, many ways of experiencing one's faith, which are all models for us. Chinese culture, Confucius, cannot generate such models. Confucius calls on people to be "saint-like", provides moral rules, but does not offer any model in the flesh. In the Church instead there are many examples to follow.

In addition to this, there is the friendship I developed with a few Catholic diplomats. Every time I met the Filipino ambassador, Ms Leonida Vera, she would tell me: "Chou, I want to be the Godmother at your baptism".

Finally, I met a French clergyman from the Opus Dei who helped me study the catechism and understand the basic tenets of the Catholic faith.

Talking about the Opus Dei, some people are suspicious that there might be an alliance between Taiwan and the Opus Dei, somehow blessed by your baptism!

My connection to the Opus Dei came about in a totally accidental way. Somebody might see some great scheme of conquest of the mainland China, but it is not true. First of all, I live in the sant'Eugenio parish where I was baptised; it is my parish. I chose to be baptised there like any ordinary believer. In the Vatican I was offered a chance to be baptised by the Pope but I refused because I did not want to create a diplomatic incident. The baptism was celebrated on Easter Monday before my two sons, my wife and many friends. My son told me: "Now you are one of us!" That morning I met the pope and I told him that I was baptised during Easter. He remembered because he had sent a Best Wishes note through Cardinal Sodano.

What is there in the Christian faith that is missing from Chinese culture that made you convert and get baptised?

I did not adhere to any religion before. Like many Chinese I followed Confucian precepts. I can say I am a disciple of Confucius who has become Christian. I have studied Confucius quite a lot, learnt how to be a good man, morally upright, respectful of others . . . He, too, like in the Gospels, said: "Go unto others as you would have them do unto you". On many levels, Confucianism and Christianity have many things in common. If China gave Christianity freedom, many Chinese would convert. But in Christianity there is something unique. When you pray for example, you establish a personal rapport with God, one of closeness to Jesus. In Chinese culture there is silence, meditation, but it is a rapport with oneself, not God. Through praying, saintly intercession and that of the Holy Mother, one can realise one's wish for holiness. Man's moral solitude comes to an end.

After your conversion what is your relationship to China?

I was baptised Christopher, the pilgrim who carried baby Jesus on his shoulders. My wish is to bring Jesus to the Chinese world, both the mainland and Taiwan. Every day I pray: Oh Lord, help me see what I must do to accomplish what my name entails.

One thing I'd like to do is work in favour of religious freedom in China. The People's Republic of China has a crazy fear of religion in general and of the Catholic Church in particular. And yet the Catholic Church in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore does some marvellous things that are appreciated by the wider society. The Church extols spiritual values that underpin society's foundations. If I met the leaders in Beijing I would tell them: Don't be afraid. If you give the Church greater freedom, there will be more love, peace and reconciliation in society.

There is a great difference between Taiwan and China on the issue of religious freedom. In Taiwan there is a clear demarcation between state and religion. I told my chiefs that I had become a Christian after my baptism. Getting baptised was my personal decision. Had I been an ambassador of the People's Republic of China I would have been recalled immediately and perhaps landed in jail.

You, missionaries, are also welcome in Taiwan; not like in China where you have to sign a pledge not to evangelise if you wish to be let in!

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