Taipei (AsiaNews) - "We have set the goal of 15,000 baptisms, and of bringing back Catholics who have fallen away from the Church." Fr. Francesco King, vicar of the diocese of Taipei, explains to AsiaNews how the Church of Taiwan is facing the year 2009, the anniversary of the island's evangelization.
150 years have passed since the birth of the first Catholic community of Taiwan. Some missionaries had arrived on the island centuries before this: in 1582, a few Jesuits shipwrecked there, and left Taiwan after a few months; in 1626, it was the turn of the Spanish Dominicans, whose missions were destroyed after the expulsion ordered by Ming. The "Beautiful Island" became a place of passage, a stop between Macau and mainland China, rather than mission territory.
The evangelization that gave rise to the Church as found in Taiwan today began in 1859: 30 Spanish priests from the Philippines and five Chinese lay catechists landed at Kaohsiung. They did not stay on the island with their sights set elsewhere, on mainland China or other countries in the area. Their missionary activity was directed to the local population. And 150 years later, the Church of Taiwan finds itself facing the same challenge. A little less than 300,000 faithful (1.42% of the population) are today called - Fr. King says - to "make a contribution to purifying society by carrying out initiatives to sensitize the people."
The vicar of Taipei explains that "Taiwanese society is afflicted by the same problems that are found in many other parts of the world: abortion, the rise in divorce, the spread of gambling." The birth rate in the country is now at the same level as that of Japan, considered the laggard of Asia: from 25.65% in 1971, it has now fallen to below 9%. To these figures are added the global economic crisis, corruption, fighting among the political class, all elements that produce widespread distress among the population. The family is experiencing a profound crisis. Religion, including traditional religion, is the object of less and less interest, especially among the young people. And the Church itself is suffering from this situation, which is showing up in the lack of locations and the shortage of priests: the two major and two minor seminaries of the island now have a total enrollment of 80.
For the bishops, society is expressing a "need of consolation" to which the Church must respond with a new evangelization. And the only way to fulfill this mission is to "enter into today's world." Fr. King explains that "the seven dioceses of Taiwan, the parishes, the associations, the Catholic schools, the hospitals, and our faithful are already organizing many initiatives, and we are starting to see the fruits of these."
The new generation of native bishops from the island has already realized the necessity of returning to the streets, and paying the greatest possible attention to a secularized society in which the faith appears to be poorly rooted. Mainland China and the Catholic communities remain, in any case, a preoccupation and a constant concern for the faithful of the island. Fr. King recalls: "We are accustomed to calling the Church of Taiwan 'the bridge Church', leading to China. But this no longer means expecting a return to the fatherland, because the community of Taiwan is now rooted in its land, and even the clergy and the hierarchy feel the urgency of a work of evangelization that will incorporate more and more elements of the island."
In order to meet the needs of a society in crisis, the focus is on the importance of the mission of the laity. Fr. Paolo Spanghero, a PIME missionary in Taiwan since 1987, tells AsiaNews that the need to emphasize the laity comes as much from the urgency of bringing Christianity into the lives of ordinary people as it does from the shortage of priests.
Since 2003 Fr. Spanghero has been living in Lioguei, a city in the mountains in the middle of the island, and explains that in the towns in the interior of the country "Mass is set only once a month, and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are very widespread." For the missionary of the PIME, the bishops' call to the laity for a greater missionary effort goes hand-in-hand with the one addressed to the priests, that they recognize the contribution that the laity make to the Church's life.
"Already today, a number of laity are in charge of schools and institutions of social service belonging to the Church," the missionary says, "and this tendency can only increase." Catholic initiatives are very widespread, especially in the field of education. In spite of the closing of a few schools in regions in the interior of the island - Fr. Spanghero recalls that they closed the kindergarten in Lioguei because of the constant migration to the city - the figures on activities on the part of the Church of Taiwan show 4 universities and colleges, 10 formation centers, 5 technical institutes, 29 middle and high schools, 10 elementary schools, and 195 kindergartens. To these must be added the activities in the area of social assistance: 12 hospitals, 15 clinics, 4 orphanages, more than 20 retirement homes, and 27 centers for the disabled.
This is an acknowledged and respected presence, but for the bishops it must not exhaust the efforts of Catholics in society, so much so that they call upon the faithful to "abandon the shore where we are fishing in peace" in order to go "where the water is deeper, and cast our nets there," according to the appeal of John Paul II; "Duc in altum!"