08/23/2006, 00.00
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Fr Antonio Didoné: embraced by pope and Chinese of Taiwan

by Bernardo Cervellera

The Camillian priest spent more than 40 years dispensing medical treatment to poor, sick children on the island of Taiwan. His brother, a Camillian too, tells AsiaNews about the mission of Fr Antonio.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – One of the pope's special guests at the audience today is Fr Antonio Didoné, a 73-year-old Camillian who has been a priest for 48 years, nearly all spent in Taiwan working as a doctor among the poor. Six years ago, Fr Antonio was stricken by progressive paralysis that now impedes the use of his legs and speech. Bound to a wheelchair or carried by others, his eyes remain lively, like those of a boy. Although he is so ill, Fr Antonio wanted to anticipate his 50 years of priesthood by visiting the pope in Rome and his birthplace Ca' Onorai, in the province of Padova. On Sunday 27 August, he will feted by the entire town. The Hon. Chou Sen Tou, Taiwan's Ambassador to the Holy See, will be present, together with 14 members of the Taiwanese community in Italy.

Fr Antonio is accompanied by his brother Giuseppe, also a Camillian and 10 years younger. They have spent the last 30 years together in Taiwan. We learned about the life of Fr Antonio from Fr Giuseppe.

In 1959, a year after his ordination, Antonio was invited to Taiwan to work in a small dispensary on the island of Penghu (Pescadores) while studying Taiwanese. The Camillian missionaries had just set up their mission in Taiwan, using priests thrown of China by Mao.

Fr Antonio was impressed by the people's extreme poverty and by the shortage of medical care so in 1966 he decided to return to Italy to graduate in medicine, specialising in paediatrics.

In 1977, he transferred to Luodong on the eastern coast of the island to live among Chinese and extremely poor tribal people. If any of them got sick or needed specialist care (and could afford it), they would need to go to Taipei, undergoing a journey of at least eight hours. Fr Antonio soon became the director of a small Camillian hospital, St Mary's, and he expanded it until it became one of the best on the island, capable of offering specialist treatment in all branches of medicine. Every day, at least 1,500 people are treated in the clinic. "At first, this hospital," said Fr Giuseppe, "was one of the few health structures that treated poor people for free. This has increased the Taiwanese people's respect for Catholicism. Some years ago, to enlarge some sections, we launched an appeal: many people who were treated for free 50 years ago have now made a position for themselves. They did not forget and helped us very much. And the majority of these donors are not Christian."

Fr Antonio is much loved because being a paediatrician, he helped many children as they were growing up. With him, the Camillians also opened departments for the care of people with disabilities and the terminally ill. In 1996, the government of Taiwan conferred upon him the "Good Doctor" award.

Since 2000, Fr Antonio has no longer been able to walk because of his paralysis but his life witness still moves many Taiwanese. Chen Yan, a Buddhist teacher, chairman of the charitable Tzu Chi Foundation of Hualian, often quotes Fr Antonio as a model of dedication. "Fr Didoné," he wrote, "truly dedicated his whole life to medical service in Taiwan… the seeds of love we sow and nurture to grow will one day become trees so large that they will offer shade and rest to many people."

Although he is ill, Fr Antonio does not want to abandon Taiwan. In 2000, he was taken to Italy to seek to treat his paralysis but after a year of treatment he wanted to return to Luodong.

It was he wanted to anticipate celebrations for the 50th anniversary of his priesthood (still two years away), but he has already made it clear that when these days are over, his place is still in Taiwan, until the Lord should call him home.

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