Bethlehem Missioner Father Josef Eugster teaches massage in Taitung Prison, Taiwan
In Chinese culture, bending down to touch another person’s feet is a sure-fire way to lose face, and learn a dose of humility. The Christian faith sees things much the same way: Jesus famously washed the feet of the 12 apostles before the last supper.
Bethlehem Missioner Father Josef Eugster of Switzerland does not wash feet, he massages them. But in Taiwan, where he has lived and worked since 1970, his unique blend of reflexology and evangelization aimed at every sector of society remains frowned upon by some.
On May 13, he started teaching foot massage at a prison in Taitung, a city on the southeast coast of the island.
“I want them to start a new life … to be more caring people by learning the virtue of humility from foot massage,” Fr Eugster says of the inmates.
The 74-year-old seems to have had an impact in what is only the second prison in Taiwan to introduce the practise, following in the footsteps of Hualien prison 200 kilometers north.
Taitung inmate Chen, who only gave his surname, says that the patience required to give a foot massage has already had a positive impact on his character.
“I had a bad temper and easily quarreled with people,” he says.
Although Fr Eugster says that he hopes his efforts to teach foot massage across Taiwan will help people spiritually – he regularly discusses God while kneading and pressing pressure points on the soles of the feet – it was the aim of providing physical relief which first got him started.
Sent to Taitung as a missionary in 1970, Fr Eugster first became interested in reflexology in 1977 when a friend and colleague gave him a book to help ease rheumatoid arthritis in his knees. Fr Eugster then taught himself healing massage using a method which mixed reflexology with ancient Chinese theories including Yin and Yang.
During much of his 36-year-long massage career, Fr Eugster says he has faced opposition “from bishops to laypeople” for pursuing a role deemed beneath his position.
But, he says, that all changed in 2003 when he was summoned to The Vatican following a back-and-forth through the then Taiwanese ambassador to the Holy See, Raymond Tai Rui-ming.
After his massages were vetted by three cardinals, Fr Eugster was finally permitted to give a foot massage to Pope John Paul II.
“I told the pope that foot massage is how I evangelize in Taiwan,” he says.
Two weeks later, the Taiwanese ambassador relayed to him that the pope had seen a marked improvement in his health. At the time, he had difficulty walking due to a knee problem, was unable to speak properly because of damage to his vocal chords and could not hold his head straight.
The cardinals noted that Fr Eugster’s technique involved diagnosing health problems simply by touching someone’s feet followed by targeting pressure points to provide relief.
Since starting out in 1977, he has taught his methods to an estimated 10,000 people in countries including Japan, Malaysia and Bolivia, and given his famous massages to many thousands more worldwide.
Hong Pei-gen, a prosecutor in Taitung district, is among the latest converts to Fr Eugster’s methods. His office is funding the program in Taitung prison.
“It is comfortable … a worthwhile experience,” he said after receiving his first massage from Fr Eugster.