10/05/2016, 08.36
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Msgr. John B. Tseng, the first aboriginal Taiwanese bishop, retires

by Xin Yage

Ordained bishop in 1998. His  commitment to Bible translation into the local language, following the example of Bethlehemites missionaries. The Church has "a very important role in our culture." More than a third of the island's Catholics are aboriginal. The apologies of President Tsai Ing-wen for violence against the tribes.


Taipei (AsiaNews) - The auxiliary bishop of Hualien, Msgr. John B. Tsi-Chien Tseng (曾 建 次 輔 理 主教), will retire for reasons of age, in mid-October. The conclusion of the public ministry of the bishop is being heralded as a major celebration also because he was the first Aboriginal pastor on the island. Taiwan's aboriginal population is composed of 14 ethnic groups. Each has its own oral language and its own tradition and history. More than a third of the Catholic population on the island is Aboriginal.

Msgr. Tseng was born on December 11, 1942 in the province of Chihpen in Taitung (台東縣 知本) and was ordained a priest at thirty, on March 21, 1972. His friends and community will remember him as having been very close to the simple people. "He celebrated Mass, thespent time with the young people and he also chewed betel nut (檳榔), we smoked a cigarette together and drank a few glasses of beer to share moments as friends," recalls Mr. Sun (孫大川 先生), today the aboriginal with the highest post in the Taiwanese government as Vice President of the Court of Auditors (監察院), one of the five departments of the central government, which controls the legality, regularity and sound financial management of all other departments.

In 1998 father Tseng was named to the Episcopate and became auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Hualien (花蓮 教區). "He was the first aboriginal bishop of the Taiwanese church, a great recognition and a great honor," recalls Maria Chen, of the parish of the Immaculate Conception of Chihpen (知本 聖母 無 染 原罪 堂).

Mr. Sun  continues, "He belongs to Zhiben tribes (知本), I Xiabinlang the tribes (下 檳榔). We Aborigines have long prayed for our Bishop, I mean, a bishop who was chosen from among the faithful of our tribe. When Tseng was nominated we realized that God had listened to us! ".

"Jesus and the prophets in our language"

Msgr. Tseng was not born into a Catholic family, but thanks to the mission of the Bethlehemites fathers his family chose to be baptized and to belong to the Christian community after he began primary school. "For me - the bishop told AsiaNews - the Bethlehemites missionaries (白 冷 會 神父 們) were fundamental. Especially Father Patrick Veil (費 道 宏 神父), from Switzerland whom  I met when I was 10, he played a key role in my formation and in the future choices of my life. When I saw that he was a missionary, but had studied and perfectly spoke the language of our tribe, I realized that the Church had a very important role in our culture. All this has a huge effect on me. He could translate the language of Jesus and the prophets and apostles into our local language. I also grew up speaking Japanese and Mandarin (Taiwan at that time was still a colony of Japan), languages ​​that I like very much, but obviously not the language spoken at home and in the tribal meetings, which for us means Aboriginal identity and belonging . When I grew up and I started my studies at the seminary, thanks to Fr. Veil’s  inspiration, we then started working on the translation of the Bible, to preserve the beauty of our tradition. These things seem obvious but they are not, they require a huge commitment in terms of time and dedication. "

Sister Teresa Kao (高 定 妹 修女), superior of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross (聖 十字架 慈愛 修女 會), speaks of her collaboration with Msgr. Tseng ever since he was a young priest: "He was very nice and approachable. He was not afraid to share the life of the poorest communities. Always ready to help, even physically. I remember once one of the elders who  was welcomed to our nursing home had to be visited in the clinic, but no one could accompany him and he could not walk. The doctor was busy with other cases and could not go to his house. Father Tseng picked him up and  put him on his shoulders, and travelled almost two kilometers with that old man on his shoulder along the mountain path. When he arrived he simply told us: 'I'm sorry, I brought  him because I could not wait for the doctor' and he did things like that in many situations, always in our aboriginal community. "

Aboriginal priests thanks to missionaries

After Mass in the nice community of Chihpen, where we went to interview Msgr. Tseng now 75 years of age, an elderly woman tells us: "We have been brought up by Bethlehemites missionaries who came and spent their lives with us. We are very grateful for this. Also, when the Church gave us a bishop of our tribe we realized that God was among us, there was no longer just a foreign person to represent the service of the Church. "

The Bethlehemites fathers have built more than 50 parishes; a vocational school for Aboriginal children to help them  enter the world of work; two houses for people with physical and mental problems, one of which is entrusted to the Sisters of Nazareth. Without them, the Catholic community in Taitung would not be what it is now. But from the beginning their mission has always had as its goal to be able to pass the reins to the local and indigenous community of clergy. "Every project had to become self-sufficient and not dependent on external aid, each parish had to be entrusted to the priests of the local diocesan clergy" the elderly Swiss missionary Fr. Gottfried Vonwyl who is residing in Taitung tells us (魏主安 神父). And the numbers bear this out. The Aboriginal priests of the Diocese of Taitung and Hualien, where Msgr. Tseng was auxiliary bishop, are now 38, the highest number in all of Taiwan.

We ask Msgr. Tseng about his plans after retirement: "For sure I will devote myself to revising and refining the translation of the Bible, especially the letters of Paul and Peter in which I have specialized, to safeguard our language in its integrity. We have to pass this important legacy to the younger generation. In the coming years, if God gives me health, I will have the time and ability to do this and it seems to us an important job to do. Also I will devote a lot of time to all the elders of our tribe who need companionship and help, so they do not feel lonely or abandoned".

His brother's wife hopes his health will remain strong as it is now: "We want him to remain healthy and be an example for the next generations with his vocation and his episcopal mission. We were really lucky to have shared this journey with him. He became the bearer of our demands to government officials and competent authorities, even within the Church. "

Just last August 1, the new President of Taiwan, Ms. Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for the first time led the government's apology to the elders of the aboriginal tribes. "It 's the first time that a president has apologized for the harassment caused by the political authorities in the past, and for us it was an important gesture that honors the new president," said Fr. Joseph Guan (關 芝 勇 神父), parish priest of Kenting.

In this whole process of recognition of the aboriginal Taiwanese tribes and flourishing ecclesial communities, Msgr. Tseng continues to be a vital presence which testifies to the desire to be at the service of those who live on the margins of society.

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