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Aboriginal Christians fall prey to modernity

Taiwan's mountain villages face Catholic faith crisis

Ami indigenous Catholics in eastern Taiwan Ami indigenous Catholics in eastern Taiwan
  • Francis Kuo, Taipei
  • Taiwan
  • February 15, 2011
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Government policies promoting aboriginal culture, together with economic development, have gradually secularized many Catholic villages in Taiwan.

Villages in the lowlands can maintain their Catholic tradition in general, thanks to various lay associations and an increase in foreign brides. However, villages in the mountains face continuing losses of Catholic population.

Wanchin in southern Pingtung county, where the Immaculate Conception Minor Basilica is located, is a typical lowland Catholic village.

According to Father Rubin Martinez, 48, pastor of the oldest Catholic church in Taiwan, the majority of the villagers have been Catholics for many generations since Catholicism was introduced to Taiwan in 1859.

The Dominican priest, who has served in Taiwan for 21 years, is fluent in the Taiwanese dialect, which is more commonly spoken than Mandarin in the southern part of Taiwan. He is very adapted to the life of Wanchin because his home in Palencia, Spain, is also a Catholic village.

“Faithful of different ages come to church every Sunday and sufficient donations help sustain the parish,” he said.

By contrast the indigenous villages in the mountains of eastern Hualien diocese are experiencing a different fate.

Father Joseph Chang, pastor of Christ the King parish in Shoufeng township, said many Ami tribal Catholics have returned to their aboriginal religion due to the government’s active promotion of a return to their roots, causing a drastic loss in the number of Catholics.

Economic prosperity in recent decades has also secularized the society. Young people who left the less ideal mountainous environment to study and work have gone astray in the secular world, forgetting their Catholic life, the 37-year-old priest lamented.

“Half a century ago, foreign missionaries came here and baptized many poor villagers through distribution of relief items. But today, only elderly people and children are left in the mountains but the children no longer go to church after they enter high schools.

Archbishop Peter Liu Cheng-chung of Kaohsiung commented: “Wanchin is the only area in Taiwan that upholds the legacy of the Catholic faith.”

“The parish celebrates its feast day, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, every year on the first Sunday of December. Thousands of pilgrims from all seven dioceses join the bustling celebrations, which include a solemn Mass and a Marian procession through neighboring villages.

“Another festival which creates an intense atmosphere of religion and culture is Christmas. Every Catholic family decorates a manger at home and hangs festive lights and colorful banners on the streets.

“Thousands of pilgrims are so enthusiastic to prepare themselves for the Church feasts that the parish has to hold outdoor confessions. As the celebrations adhere to the folk tradition, non-Catholics are also attracted to come.”

Pan Se-hua, Wanchin parish’s secretary, revealed the secret of their unity.

“Most official and civil activities in the village are organized by Church groups, and the parish has all kinds of lay associations from Sunday school for children to senior groups, which helps pass faith from one generation to another,” he said.

Young people who have left the village for study or work often keep contact with the parish. When they get married, they return home for the sacrament of matrimony, Pan added.

The number of Catholic villagers remains steady thanks to the prevalence of marriages with foreign brides, he said.

From Filipinas to Indonesian women about two decades ago to today’s brides from Vietnam and mainland China, they are mostly already Catholics or they get baptized after their marriage.

Andrea Pan, a catechist in neighboring Chiaping village, said: “Eighty percent of the Paiwan ethnic villagers here are Catholics.” More than 50 couples held their matrimony sacraments last year.

The Catholic faith can be carried on mostly because religious activities are coherent with the folk culture and tradition. The faithful hold Mass to celebrate the Paiwan’s harvest festival every August, she said.

Another possible reason for the contrast between low and high ground is the failure of the Catholic tradition to integrate into the indigenous culture. The Ami Catholics insist on celebrating harvest festival at the Christ the King feast in November, whereas the tribal practice is in August.

According to government figures, there are about 490,000 aboriginals belonging to 14 tribes in Taiwan, accounting for some two percent of the total populations. Each tribe has its own culture, language, customs and social structure.

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