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80 years of Vatican ties with the Republic of China

There is no shortage, even in Rome, of sincere friends, who support the reasons and aspirations of Taiwan

Taiwanese honor guards parade to mark the island's National Day in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei on Oct. 10

Taiwanese honor guards parade to mark the island's National Day in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei on Oct. 10. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 21, 2022 03:28 AM GMT

Updated: October 21, 2022 04:11 AM GMT

Oct. 23 marks the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Republic of China, which exists today in Taiwan.

As surprising as it may seem to many, in Via della Conciliazione 4 in Rome there is the embassy of the Republic of China. Its red flag with a white sun amid a blue rectangle flutters from the balcony.

There is, therefore, a Chinese ambassador to the Holy See, Matthew S. M. Lee, and he comes from Taiwan.

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The Embassy of the Republic of China represents the island of Taiwan. Yet the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition of China, which began in 1942, does not concern either the People's Republic of China (which came into existence in 1949) nor, strictly speaking, is it an agreement with Taiwan. Taiwan as such does not exist as an independent legal entity. What we are commenting on here is precisely the relationship between the Holy See and the Republic of China, based in Taiwan.

The People's Republic of China has no diplomatic relations with the Holy See. However, there is an important agreement regarding the appointment of bishops, signed in 2018, renewed in 2020 and which will be renewed this month. The signing of this agreement, and its confirmation in recent years, suggests possible diplomatic developments between the Holy See and Beijing. This, of course, can happen only to the detriment of Taiwan.

The first Chinese diplomat to the Holy See was Xie Shoukang, whom Pius XII received at the Vatican on Feb 25, 1943. He remained in Rome until 1946 and returned as envoy to the Vatican in 1954. He then assumed the formal title of ambassador in 1959 and served in this capacity until 1966, when he concluded his diplomatic post.

The second Chinese envoy to the Vatican, in 1946, was the well-known Catholic jurist, scholar and politician John Wu. Originally a Methodist, he joined Catholicism thanks to his friendship with Nicola Maestrini, a PIME missionary in Hong Kong. Wu is the author of "The Science of Love," a beautiful essay dedicated to Therese of Lisieux, in which he described her as a marvelous encounter of Christian faith with Confucian ethics and Taoist mysticism.

The Holy See sent Maillard de Tournon and Carlo Ambrogio Mezzabarba as apostolic delegates to China in the 18th century, in the context of the Chinese Rites Controversy. From 1922 to 1935 Celso Costantini was apostolic delegate to China, sent by Pius XI to open the way to localization of the Church, applying the recommendations of Benedict XV’s Maximum illud (1919).

The first Vatican diplomat to China’s government, appointed following the 1942 agreement, was Antonio Riberi, who set up in Nanjing on July 6, 1946 with the title of Apostolic Inter-nuncio.

Amid the political upheavals and anti-religious campaigns in China, Riberi was expelled on Sept 5, 1951. He stayed for a few months in Hong Kong. The city was then a British colony and could not be the seat of a diplomatic presence. Riberi then settled in Taiwan, where the nationalists of the Guomingdang, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, had taken refuge after their defeat. In 1952 the nunciature to the Republic of China formally moved to Taipei, capital of Taiwan. The relations signed by Pius XII with the Republic of China were, in fact, relations with China: the Holy See chose to remain present in Chinese territory.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI visited Hong Kong and sent an unheard appeal to the authorities of the People's Republic of China. The following year, the pope reduced the diplomatic status of relations with Taipei by sending a charge d'affaires rather than a nuncio. In this way, Paul VI wanted to prove the willingness of the Holy See to talk to China. For this reason, no pope has ever visited Taiwan, despite its vibrant Catholic community and numerous missionaries.

Historical circumstances have forced Taiwan and the Holy See to walk together for a long distance"

Today only 14 states, mostly very small, recognize the Republic of China in Taiwan. The Holy See is by far the most prestigious jurisdiction to entertain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. These are, indeed, only formal relations, which the Holy See seems to maintain with reluctance, pending a resolution of the dispute with China.

Former secretary of state, Angelo Sodano, reiterated on various occasions, particularly in 2005, that the Holy See was ready to move the nunciature from Taipei to Beijing "not tomorrow morning but tonight itself." Other times, expressions such as "immediate willingness to move in Beijing” were expressed by Vatican officials. These expressions displeased Catholics and citizens of Taiwan. The message was: the Holy See is in Taiwan almost unwillingly, much less by choice and conviction.

In fact, historical circumstances have forced Taiwan and the Holy See to walk together for a long distance. And I believe that Taiwan cannot be considered as a mere historical legacy, that one can get rid of. Taiwan is small, but its story has great significance: the Church in Taiwan is free and at peace.

On the island, there are freedom, pluralism and democracy. Taiwan is the first democracy in the history of the Chinese nation, and it is unfair to belittle the significance of this important achievement. It is no small thing at this time, when many deny and disdain freedom, dialogue and democracy.

In Taiwan, more than anywhere else in the world, traditional Chinese culture and faiths flourish. There is no place as Taiwan to encounter and experience traditional Chinese culture and religious costumes and rites. Different faiths live in peace and dialogue. The Church is actively participating in such a dialogue. Taiwan is a precious laboratory not only for politics, but also for collaboration and peace among believers from different faiths.

As we have seen in recent months, the Taiwan issue is a priority for Beijing, especially for President Xi Jinping. One wonders whether the Chinese regime has come to an agreement with the Holy See precisely in order to further isolate Taiwan. The unification of China and Taiwan will happen eventually. China has stated that reunification cannot be postponed forever. Until a few years ago, the prospect of peaceful reunification was still credible: the "one country, two systems" formula applied to Hong Kong was meant to reassure Taiwan. But since Hong Kong was plunged into the liberticidal policy of the National Security Law two years ago, and democratic aspirations were obliterated, Taiwan can no longer rely on this model.

I know and love Taiwan. In Taiwan, I studied the Chinese language and culture, and I began my missionary life among the Chinese people. From 1991 to 1994 I lived in the two main cities of the island: Kaohsiung in the south, and Taipei in the north. Exactly in those exciting years, Taiwan was undergoing a major transformation, from the martial law imposed by the Guomindang to the democratic elections.

I find that in the world there is little sympathy and knowledge about Taiwan and its impressive achievements. Few seem genuinely interested in knowing its history and respecting the opinion of its citizens. Taiwan has a history of oppression, rebellion, suffering, massacres and the capacity of overcoming many unfavorable circumstances of which many know nothing. It is not right to reduce Taiwan to a pawn on the Chinese chessboard.

"The intention is not to oppose them to those of China, but rather and very simply to say that Taiwan exists"

In Rome, the tireless ambassador Matthew Lee is always attentive in promoting the cultural and religious aspects of Taiwan’s life, sponsoring initiatives of solidarity and friendship, and scrupulous in avoiding overloading the political tones. Yet, at least publicly, his initiatives do not find much correspondence from high Vatican offices. Lee has organized two major events this year marking the anniversary: on July 11 and on Oct. 5.

On the latter occasion, the ambassador declared that the Church "has played a fundamental role in the development of the country. It has opened schools, colleges and universities that have educated, and continue to educate, thousands of students every year. The Church has also established, and currently operates, 12 large hospitals and over 100 retirement homes, offering high standards and affordable healthcare. Catholic missionaries, while bringing positive changes in people's lives, have always been committed to promoting the local language and culture. Taiwan is committed to promoting sustainable development initiatives to combat global climate change in line with the principles of pope Francis’ Laudato si, actively supporting the thoughts of the Holy Father.”

There is no shortage, even in Rome, of sincere friends, who support the reasons and aspirations of Taiwan. The intention is not to oppose them to those of China, but rather and very simply to say that Taiwan exists and its people wish to continue on the path of freedom, democracy, dialogue and peace.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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