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Vatican renews focus on Taiwan

For years relations between Taiwan and the Holy See 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.

Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, made nearly overlapping visits to Taiwan in December.

Others have also made recent visits to the island, including Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, former bishop of Hong Kong, and Bishop Jose Lai Hung-seng of Macau. The Pontifical Urban University in Rome also 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 the country, 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 the president, Ma Ying-jeou.

During his November 30 to December 5 visit, Cardinal Grocholewski signed an 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, the university also conferred an honorary degree upon Archbishop Hon.

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 is 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 Church in Taiwan five talents, which include the education agreement whereby Fu Jen University has been positioned to train more Chinese theologians by securing recognition from the Taiwanese 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 have local recognition.

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

Therefore, the Vatican anticipates a return of 10 talents.

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, official Church has hid it in the ground.

It remains to be seen how the master in this metaphor will respond. Francis Kuo, UCAN

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