Santosh Benedict, a Jesuit seminarian from India, found intonation the most difficult part in learning the Chinese language. He says he spent six months trying to differentiate the four tones of spoken Chinese, before being able to coverse and listen easily.
He was one of the first of many confreres the Society of Jesus says it plans to invite from around the world, to study the Chinese language and culture to sustain their mission in China and countries with large Chinese populations.
Benedict, 30, who joined the congregation nine years ago, says he decided to come to Taipei after reading a recruitment notice issued by the General Mother House and talking with his provincial superior.
Besides intonation, he was also confused by the euphemistic way Chinese people express themselves. He says he once invited a friend to dinner but was told to make it “another day.” He understood this as rearranging the date, but he later realized it was a polite way of saying “no thanks.”
Thanks to computer software, Benedict can type Chinese words by using the Roman alphabet, which spares him from having to learn to write the complex Chinese characters. Now almost speaking fluent Chinese, he often joins student activities in Taipei.
When he completes his language course, he says he will either serve in Taiwan or go to southern India where many Chinese people work in high technology firms.
Former Provincial of China, Father Louis Gendron, says the Jesuit China Province also wants to open a learning center in Beijing to train their confreres.
The Canadian priest, who served as provincial from 2005-2012, says he has asked his fellow superiors to recruit confreres to join a special program with “the first year being spent in Taipei and a second year in Beijing.” The program was put together by students at a Jesuit university in the United States.
For confreres, “it would broaden their horizons and make Jesuits truly members of an international congregation,” Fr Gendron said in a recent interview.
China has become more open and more appealing, he noted. Confreres are mostly interested in the academic field, he said, adding that many opportunities will present themselves to work in the mainland where tertiary education institiutes need them.
“We have a heavy responsibility in China, as the Society considers China a top priority in its working plan,” Fr Gendron said.
“Our society was the first religious congregation to arrive in China and we are continuing our mission here,” he added.
Today, the China Province faces several problems which include aging confreres and a lack of local vocations.
Fr Gendron said the province had more than 300 members in the 1950s, with many more leaving the mainland for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Most have now died, leaving around 90 confreres, many of whom are elderly.
Campus ministry has become difficult if there is no vocation in Taiwan. The Fu Jen Catholic University, for example, struggles to find Jesuits to take up teaching posts. There are no more confreres working at St Ignatius High School, a famous private school in New Taipei city which was founded by the Society in Shanghai in 1850 and moved to Taiwan in 1963.
Nevertheless, the Jesuits do not intend to withdraw from Taiwan, but wish to develop, he stressed. They are providing formation to lay Catholics, sparing confreres from ministries that do not need to be performed by priests.