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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Catholics and the Vatican in Taiwan

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As the average person has to work, in Taiwan it’s easy to forget that it’s Easter. December 25th used to be a public holiday from 1963 to 1999, but not because of Christmas. Constitution Day, established during the Chinese Civil War, was abolished as such to make room for the 40-hour working week by the first independence-leaning government.

Christians make up just about 4% of Taiwan’s population of 23 million people and that number is quite evenly distributed among Catholics and Protestants. According to my personal experience on the island, the latter tend to claim the term “Christians” for themselves only, which in part is related to the early translation of the term into Mandarin and therefore the confusion could be excused. Specially, as in Chinese culture religious beliefs are a personal matter and very few historical examples of zeal and fanaticism can be found. Nevertheless, sometimes during Spanish classes I felt obliged to remind my Taiwanese student that in Latin America such a distinction would be deemed offensive by many, and a potentially embarrassing situation should be avoided at all cost.

As China insists that Taiwan is nothing but a renegade province that needs to return to the lap of the motherland, and therefore doesn’t tolerate dual recognition, the Holy See is Taiwan’s only ally left in Europe. Diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Nationalist government under Chiang Kais-shek were established in 1942, when Taiwan was still a Japanese colony. The leftist Pope Francis has expressed his desire for a better relationship with Peking and in September 2018 made concessions regarding the ordeal of bishops appointed by the Chinese Communists, but so far Taipei keeps his embassy in the heart of Rome.

Interestingly, the sign indicating the entrance to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in Taipei is only in Latin and Chinese, not in English. Located exactly opposite of a big Mormon temple, it gives the Chargé d’ Affairs, the Vatican’s highest representative in Taiwan since the Nuncio was recalled in 1971, the chance to enjoy a full view of an impressive building expanded over the years, whenever he stands on his balcony.

Fu-jen and Wenzao Ursuline universities, located in the capital Taipei and the southern city of Kaohsiung respectively, are both Catholic run: the former, by Jesuits expelled from China at the beginning of the 1950s, the latter, by the Roman Union of the Order of St. Ursula in the 1960s.

Current Vice-President Chen Chien-jen is a Catholic who attended the canonization for Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He is also an epidemiologist, which in the times of a pandemic turned out to be a blessing for Taiwan.

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