A conference was held today in Rome marking the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Holy See. “Historical circumstances have forced Taiwan and the Holy See to walk together for many years. Taiwan cannot be regarded as a mere historical legacy that we can get rid of,” said Fr Gianni Criveller (PIME) in his address.
Rome (AsiaNews) – On the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Holy See, the Taiwanese Embassy to the Holy See today held a conference titled “Beautiful Taiwan, the Field of God” on the history and aspects of the Catholic presence on the island.
In the presence of Taiwan’s Ambassador Matthew S.M. Lee and the Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples Bishop Protase Rugambwa, the conference saw the participation of PIME missionary Fr Gianni Criveller, Camillian missionary Fr Felice Chech, and Undersecretary of Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue Fr Paulin Batairwa Kubuya.
Fr Gianni Criveller, who was a missionary in Kaohsiung and Taipei from 1991 to 1994, spoke about the “History of the Catholic mission in Taiwan”.
Formosa’s missionary beginnings
In 1624 the Dutch occupied the southern part of Taiwan. Three years later Georgius Candidius, a Dutch official and missionary, wrote a report on the local population. The latter included only a few hundred Chinese, fishermen from Fujian province. Most of the people belonged to many other ethnic groups.
The Spanish arrived in northern Taiwan in 1626. They called it Formosa (sic), the beautiful (island), the colonial name by which Taiwan was known in the West. Dominican missionaries from the Holy Rosary province already operating in the Philippines and Japan came; they included two Spaniards and 11 Japanese. They built the first church and founded communities in Jilong and Danshui in the far north.
Starting in 1631, Spanish and Italian Franciscans joined the Dominicans, using Taiwan as a stage on their journey to China. From Taiwan they crossed the strait to Fujian, thus avoiding Macau, subject to Portugal’s Padroado system, which prevented non-Jesuits from entering China.
In 1633 two Franciscans and two Dominicans, including Antonio Maria Caballero and Domingos Morales, travelled to China using this route. They challenged the Jesuits’ missionary method, sparking a well-known controversy over the Chinese Rites. In 1642 Catholic and Spanish missionaries were expelled by the Dutch United East India Company, thus ending the first Catholic mission in Taiwan.
In 1662 Chinese leader Zheng Chenggong (known as Koxinga in the West), pretender to the Ming throne and engaged in resistance against the Qing (Manchu) conquest of China, seized Fort Zeelandia (Tainan) from the Dutch, who were forced to leave Taiwan.
Twenty years later, in 1683, the Qing defeated Koxinga and extended their control over Taiwan to crush the last Ming resistance. It was then that the mainland first exercised control over the island.
Phase two: the difficult Spanish mission
Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895 following the Treaty of Shimonoseki. In the short interlude between the signing and the taking of possession, the Republic of Formosa was set up, the first in Asia. In 1945 Taiwan was returned to China following Japan’s defeat in World War II.
In the interim period, the Catholic presence was renewed in 1859, thanks again to the Spanish Dominicans, who had been operating in Fujian province for two centuries. The missionaries crossed the strait from Xiamen and settled in Kaohsiung, the main southern city. For 90 years, until the arrival of Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi) in 1949, the Dominicans were the only Catholic missionaries on the island.
Their work was not easy. The island’s ethnic, social and cultural make-up was very complex. Few people converted to Catholicism. At the end of the 19th century, Catholics numbered around a thousand, concentrated in a few, isolated villages.
The small village of Wanchin deserves special mention. Located some 60 kilometres south of Kaohsiung, it converted en masse to Catholicism in the 1860s and held onto the faith despite hostility from the authorities and neighbouring villages. Even today it is a special place, where the practice of the faith remains strong and many religious vocations are born.
On 8 December, feast day of the Immaculate Conception, the solemnity is celebrated with great pomp in the local basilica in a service that combines traditional Chinese elements, local customs, and religious practices inherited from the Spanish missionaries.
In the rest of Taiwan, the Church grew slowly. The first seminary was opened only in 1920. The Japanese presence put Christians in a tough spot. To smooth relations with the Japanese authorities, in 1912 Taiwan became a Japanese-language Autonomous Apostolic Prefecture, separate from Xiamen.
The Dominicans made every effort to draw the Taiwanese to the faith, but they were still strongly opposed to Chinese Rites. And this made it harder for the rural population to accept the Gospel since they were strongly attached to the land, burials, ancestors, family and tablets with the names of the dead.
In 1935 and 1939 the Holy See overturned Benedict XIV's decision of 1742, and accepted rites devoted to one’s ancestors and to Confucius so that after the Second World War the situation changed.
Since then, land reform, industrialisation, education, and urbanisation have led the people of Taiwan away from the land and the traditional family, hence from the practice of ancestor rites.
Taiwan involved in diplomacy
The Holy See and the Republic of China established diplomatic relations in 1942. This is the event we are celebrating today. In 1946, China’s second ambassador to the Holy See was the well-known jurist, scholar and politician John Wu, who had converted to Catholicism through his friendship with Nicola Maestrini, a PIME missionary in Hong Kong. John Wu is the author of The Science of Love, a beautiful essay dedicated to Thérèse of Lisieux, where the saint is described as a synthesis of Confucian ethics and Taoist mysticism.
As a result of China’s political upheavals, Internuncio Antonio Riberi was expelled from Pekin (now Beijing) and the nunciature to the Republic of China was moved to Taipei in 1951. Riberi visited Hong Kong, but the city was then a British colony, and could not have a diplomatic presence. The accords signed by Pius XII with the Republic of China were, in fact, relations with China; the Holy See chose to remain in Chinese territory.
In 1970 Paul VI visited Hong Kong and sent an unheeded appeal to the authorities of the People's Republic of China. The following year, the pope reduced the diplomatic status of the Holy See’s diplomatic mission by sending a chargé d'affaires to Taipei. Paul VI wanted to show the Holy See's readiness to engage China and no pope has ever visited Taiwan.
Phase Three: China’s Church in exile in Taiwan
In the early 1950s, Taiwan’s Catholics numbered around 11,000, plus 12 Spanish Dominicans and three Taiwanese priests. From China, more than 800 priests and several hundred nuns, both Chinese and foreign, joined Internuncio Riberi.
With them also came a million soldiers and refugees, an exodus that had a huge impact on the island in a radical and indelible way. The Catholic community underwent impressive growth, to 300,000. Half of them belong to the ethnic groups concentrated in the mountainous areas of central Taiwan.
Six dioceses were established with schools, hostels, hospitals, universities and cultural centres. The needs of ordinary people were met through social outreach during years of emergency caused by the huge influx of refugees.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Church in Taiwan held a record, namely the highest ratio of men and women religious to lay Catholics. However, the bishops and priests from mainland China planned to return as soon as possible, and so created a sort of Church-in-exile, with few roots among the local population. Even the use of the national language at the expense of Taiwanese made the church feel little Taiwanese to the Taiwanese.
Phase Four: Taiwan’s Church and the challenges of evangelisation
This situation has changed for the better in the past 30 years, when the liturgy switched from Chinese to the Taiwanese language and the bishops began to be local, from any ethnic background.
In the 1970s, thanks to theological work at the Catholic University of Fu Jen (Taipei), liturgical adaptations were proposed, such as reading passages on classic Chinese wisdom during services and the use of sacred images in Chinese style.
In the city of Kaohsiung only one church, if my memory is correct, has the presbytery and the altar in the form of a traditional family altar for ancestor worship, the Church of St Catherine of Siena, which is built in Chinese style.
However, evangelisation remains a challenge in modern times in a society in great transformation. Much has been done to preserve the identity of the non-Chinese communities living in the mountains.
Numbering around 200,000 people, each group has its own language and culture, and have shown great willingness to embrace the Gospel. But their future is somewhat uncertain. The young leave the mountains for industrial cities on the coast, and easily lose their identity and faith.
Conversion to Catholicism is nowadays rare. Meeting someone interested in Christianity is a happy occurrence. Christianity is still seen by many as alien to the Chinese world, something hard to understand and practise.
Conversely, considerable efforts have been made towards society and young people. The goal is not quantitative but to bear credible witness to the Gospel in an evangelical process amid a small flock.
In Taipei, I was struck by the decision of a young Taiwanese man to embrace the faith. Personally, it did not bring him any advantage; in fact, his choice brought hardships and resistance from his family and friends. This seems to me to be the true work of Grace.
I will end with this thought. Historical circumstances have forced Taiwan and the Holy See to walk together for many years. Taiwan cannot be regarded as a mere historical legacy that we can get rid of.
Taiwan is small, but its story has great meaning. Here the Church is free and at peace. There is freedom, pluralism, exchanges between believers of different faiths and democracy. It is no small feat at a time when freedom, dialogue and democracy are loved so little.
* PIME missionary and China expert