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Vatican renews focus on Taiwan

Renewed interest raises political and hierarchical questions

  • Francis Kuo, Taipei
  • Taiwan
  • December 21, 2011
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For years relations between Taiwan and the Vatican have remained low-key and largely below the radar.

In the wake of recent visits by two Vatican officials just weeks before presidential elections, scheduled for January 14, relations seem to have taken a more high-profile turn.

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, made nearly overlapping visits to Taiwan earlier this month.

Other Catholic hierarchs have also made recent visits to the island, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, and Bishop Jose Lai Hung-seng of Macau.

And last month, the Pontifical Urban University in Rome co-hosted a seminar on Taiwan with the Chinese embassy to the Holy See.

What has occurred to make Taiwan the focus of such attention by Rome?

Is it an attempt by the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) to strengthen bonds with the Vatican, the only European state that maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, to garner support from the island's 260,000 Catholics? Or is it perhaps that the forthcoming election has piqued Rome’s interest?

What seems clear is that the visit by Vatican officials had other aims apart from a meeting with President Ma Ying-jeou.

During his visit from November 30 to December 5, Cardinal Grocholewski signed a historic agreement of cooperation with the Taiwan government on higher education, participated in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Fu Jen Catholic University and inaugurated a new stadium at Provident University in Taichung.

Meanwhile, Fu Jen university conferred an honorary degree to Archbishop Hon, who was appointed secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome last December, in part as recognition for his contributions in teaching theology for many years in mainland China.

It is customary in diplomatic practice for Vatican officials visiting Taiwan to be briefed on developments in politics and in the local Church.

With the presence of Church leaders from Hong Kong and Macau, it’s likely that some discussion took place about events across the Taiwan Straits and about the impact of political leadership changes on the Catholic Church.

Whatever the reasons behind the Vatican's recent interest in Taiwan, a common biblical metaphor might serve as the foundation for additional speculation.

The Vatican has given the Taiwan Church five “talents,” which include the education agreement whereby Fu Jen university has been positioned to train more Chinese theologians by securing recognition by the Taiwan government, along with more than 150 pontifical universities worldwide.

Under the agreement, titles and degrees granted by the faculty of theology – the only pontifical university serving Chinese Catholic communities – will finally be recognized locally.

The local Church has thereby been encouraged to reduce the threat of secularization, to use modern technology for evangelization, to promote religious vocations and local missionaries, and to encourage Church groups to utilize public resources for self-support.

Therefore, the Vatican anticipates the return of 10 “talents” from the Taiwan Church.

In contrast, the Vatican has also given the Church in mainland China one "talent,” that of papal supremacy over the appointment of bishops. And the government-controlled Church has hid it in the ground.

It remains to be seen how the “master” in this metaphor will respond.

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