Interview with Archbishop of Taipei
150 years of evangelization, service and education
The Catholic Church in Taiwan is celebrating its 150th anniversary as a tiny minority in a country with a Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist majority. Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan, S.V.D., President of the Regional Chinese Bishop's Conference of Taiwan, was interviewed on the situation of the Church in Taiwan, in English by L'Osservatore Romano's Nicola Gori.
Catholics in Taiwan represent slightly more than one percent of the population. In what way do they contribute to the construction of an ever more just. and solidary society?
Our population is about 23 million, but we have only 300,000 Catholics. To this, though, we add about 100,000 migrant workers from the Philippines. So, actually we have about 400,000.
Politically, it is terribly divided: for independence or for unification with Continental China. The President of Taiwan, with his wisdom, should be the one to find a way to unite the country and to make people have a similar way of thinking. From a political perspective, there are two parties: the Kuomintang from Mainland China, and the Progressive Party, the movement of the people. Their mentalities arc different. During elections there is much unrest, and the people are divided. In reality, they only want to live in peace.
What can the Church do?
So far the Church has not had a very powerful influence on the government. Though, the government treats the Church as very important, but more as an advisor. So it's hard to say I do believe that. the ideal reconciliation should come from religion. But this kind of concept should come from either the Protestants or the Catholics, because we Christians have this kind of idea we have this kind of solidarity — whereas other religions don't care about this.
What are the difficulties that the Church encounters in spreading the Gospel message to a population that in large part calls itself atheist or follows religions such as Buddhism or Taoism?
It is hard for Christian ideology to spread among the people because of the religious tradition present in the country. The inhabitants believe that if you are Catholic you don't venerate your ancestors. So that is one of the difficulties that will have to be slowly overcome by the Catholic Church, because we also display a certain respect for our ancestors and encourage people to respect them.
Secondly, the Chinese religious tradition does not require people to come to the temple once a week as the Catholic Church does. Christians are held living their lives to fit the Gospel and to observing the 10 commandments. The other traditions do not require this, so it is difficult for people to understand; they consider the 10 commandments an attempt to undermine their personal freedom.
But last year, in Taiwan, we started to celebrate the 150 year anniversary of evangelization that commemorates the second landing of the Dominican Fathers on the island. We have created a movement and are striving to have 15,000 baptized. I am not sure we can reach that goal but good signs are there. We are also trying to educate volunteers to accompany converts throughout the year. The numbers of baptisms are now increasing; we do believe there is a hope.
The local Church community is active above all in education, health care and charity work. What are the most significant initiatives being promoted?
In Taiwan half of the social organizations are carried out by the Church. We have 50 schools: universities, high schools and elementary schools, and hundreds of kindergartens run by Catholics. We have 7 large hospitals and about 100 nursing homes. We also endeavour to take care of the immigrants.
The doctors who work in our hospitals are not Catholic, but perhaps they will convert in the future. Neither are the 10,000 professors who work in our universities Catholic. And of all the teachers in our high schools, only 5% are Catholic. But with these institutions led by the Church, we succeed in offering our services in a non-Catholic country, and that is a miracle.
Do religious freedom and a collaborative relationship with the government effectively exist?
We enjoy complete freedom in Taiwan. Religious activities are not prohibited anywhere. The government would not stop you, would not interfere with your activities.
What is the relationship with the government like?
The politicians love big crowds and so when we invite them, they come if there are lots of people. We also appreciate their participation, because then the media comes too. But they are present for every religion when there is a big crowd; they don't make distinctions.
What is the current state of priestly vocations and in what way can lay people offer their concrete help in pastoral work?
Vocations are the weakest area in the Church in Taiwan, because currently in seven dioceses, we have 14 major seminarians and four of them are foreigners, so actually we only have 10. Therefore we have to recruit priests from Vietnam and Indonesia. One of the difficulties in the growth of vocations is that priests do not get a high salary, whereas Taiwanese people want substantial salaries.
Secondly, the social status of the priests is not high. The people of Taiwan want their sons to be trained as doctors, professionals, technicians, financial leaders, but not priests. So, vocations arc few, although we always keep praying. At meetings I always ask people, "those who pray for their own children to be priests, raise your hands". Not many do. Instead, when I say, "those who pray for someone else's children to be priests, raise your hands!" there are more people who do.
In regards to lay activity, I must say that lay people in Taiwan are really active. In the past few years, the Church has tried to help with lay education. So now we enjoy the fruits of this harvest. The activities organized by lay people are always first authorized by the priests and Bishops.
What is the relationship with Mainland China like, and what prospectives are there for the future?
All the liturgical books used in Mainland China are from Taiwan. They do not get them from Hong Kong, because Hong Kong Chinese is a little bit different from Mandarin, which is used in Taiwan. Both in the patriotic church and in the underground Church, they ask our professors to teach in their seminaries. It is also worth noting that most of our Chinese priests in Taiwan are from Mainland China, and they go back every now and then to visit their families. Sometimes they bring money to build a church. So the interaction between these two churches is really frequent.
But we are aware that the priests from Taiwan cannot celebrate the Mass openly in Mainland China, but only secretly. Only if there is religious freedom will China be able to open up to the rest of the world.
Weekly Edition in English
24/31 December 2008, page 18
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069