Taiwan is an island of diversities. It has a population of 23 million inhabitants that could be divided into three different groups. Most of them are descendants of fishermen coming from Fujian – the province on the opposite coast of China – who in the past centuries progressively settled down on the island. However, the first inhabitants of Taiwan were aborigines of Austronesian descendants. And after the Second World War, a large group of Chinese mainlanders following the Kuomintang government defeat by the Communists also settled on the island.
Spanish missionaries were the first Catholics to reach Tanshui in northern Taiwan in 1626. In 1642, after the Dutch occupation, they were arrested and deported to Batavia, Indonesia. On 18 May 1859, Spanish Dominicans came from the Philippines to Kaohsiung, where they established the Church. The island of Taiwan belonged originally to the Fukien Apostolic Vicariate. After the Japanese occupation of the island, it was only on 19 July 1913, that Taiwan became an independent apostolic prefecture. Under the pressure of the Japanese government, a Japanese prefect apostolic was appointed, Msgr. Satowaki Asajiro (1941-1946). During his term in charge, on 23 October 1942, the Holy See established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and named Archbishop Antonio Riberi as Apostolic Inter-Nuncio. After the Japanese surrender in 1946, Reverend Tu Min-cheng, a native priest of Taiwan, was appointed administrator of the Taiwan prefecture. Taiwan had been for centuries a remote province of China; then, from 1895 up to the end of the Second World War, it was colonized by Japan whose culture deeply influenced the mentality of the Taiwanese people. In the past 50 years, a growing awareness of the political identity of the island has led to a strong confrontation with China which considers Taiwan a renegade province bound to be reunited with the motherland. Only a handful of States recognize Taiwan as an independent nation: because of the opposition of China, Taiwan has no seat in the UN or in any other international organization.
A popular religion
The majority of the Taiwanese people follow a popular religion which puts together elements of Buddhism and Taoism and is centered on the veneration of ancestors and on the protection of one’s well-being, even though pure followers of each of these two religions are also quite numerous. Various Christian denominations number around 3% of the population, and Catholics less than 1%. This percentage does not include the great number of Filipino overseas workers (around 250,000), most of them Catholics, who are present in Taiwan. Unfortunately, due to the language and cultural barrier, the Filipino community in Taiwan is only marginally integrated into the local Church, even though big efforts and significant progress were made in this sense in the past years. In spite of the fact that Taiwan enjoys religious freedom, it is not easy to evangelize a society which is deeply rooted in Buddhism and Taoism. However, the main difficulty of the Church is to understand how to evangelize a society which is modern and consumerist, and centered on ‘work’. Especially in the cities, people have a lot of pressure coming from work and studies, with little time to dedicate to spiritual matters. The challenge is to be able to present the Gospel in a way which is relevant to highly educated, modern… and busy people. Taiwan can be also considered an important field of study to understand the difficulties the church in mainland China will face once their society becomes more affluent and politically free.
The Catholic Taiwanese Church has a special vocation to be a ‘Bridge Church’ between the Church in mainland China, which is not allowed to be free, and the Universal Church. Contacts and different forms of support are going on between the Catholic Taiwanese Church and the Catholic Church in mainland China. These contacts are also on different levels: some priests or sisters, who are teachers, are unofficially invited to give some courses or talks in major seminaries or convents; lay people organize themselves to support some projects; young people go to the summer camps to help out in the youth ministry. At another level, the Fu Ren Catholic University of Taiwan recently opened to mainlander students. Not long ago in time, on 20 November 2009, Taiwan celebrated the closing ceremony of the 150th anniversary of evangelization. The celebration was attended by civil and religious authorities of Taiwan, as well as cardinals and bishops from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, and Vietnam, diocesan and religious priests, together with more than 17,000 faithful from the seven dioceses.
In the celebration, Catholics gave brief testimonies on behalf of the first missionaries, local priests and religious Sisters, catechists and lay people who, with sacrifices, and their hands and hearts, constructed universities, seminaries, pastoral centers, and the Church as community in Taiwan. On the same occasion, the Bishop Emeritus of Kaohsiung, Paul Cardinal Shan, said that spreading the Good News to more people could help to reform the society. He also hopes that there will be more vocations and that one day, Taiwan will also be able to send missionaries to other countries: missionaries that are truly ‘made in Taiwan’. However, with few local vocations, an aging priest population, and a decline in conversions, the Catholic Taiwanese Church is still in strong need of foreign missionaries to support the local church. Foreign missionaries usually take a two-year language course to learn Mandarin – the official language of Taiwan – followed by a period of another two years of practice of the language in the pastoral context.
The Chinese language, using ideograms and a tonal phonetic system, is very hard to learn. After the first year of classes, a student is barely able to face a basic conversation or to write and read simple sentences. Usually, only after two years, and still with the help of a teacher, a missionary is able to start working and preaching in Chinese. The length of the learning period, based on memorization, can be quite frustrating for a missionary who wishes from the start to communicate with the people around him. This communication can take place only after months of hard work. Many missionaries say that the best way to learn a language is to mix with the people and learn from the dialogue with them. This can be true in many other countries, but it is quite impossible in a Chinese environment. However, once a missionary enters into the language system and begins communicating, he cannot but feel fascinated by this beautiful language which is one of the characteristics of the equally fascinating Chinese culture. A long initial training is necessary not only to learn the difficult language, but also to enter deeply into the mentality and the millenary culture of the people, which is extremely complex and unique. Taiwanese people are quite welcoming and generous towards missionaries, and the first feeling of ‘coldness’ is only due to the language barrier and to the ritual politeness which is typical of their culture. (M.D.V.A.)