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Taiwan mourns Cardinal Shan as a great man with the common touch

TAIPEI (SE): Paul Cardinal Shan Kuo-hsi died in Gengxin Hospital in Taipei, Taiwan, of multiple organ failure at the age of 88 on August 22 after a six-year battle with lung cancer.

Mourned across the his adopted homeland of Taiwan, his picture appeared on the front page of major newspapers on the following day and tributes were paid to what the media described as a simple man of the ordinary people.

Born on 3 December 1923 in Puyang, China, he entered the Society of Jesus in Beijing in 1946, completing novitiate and taking his first vows as a Jesuit two years later.

He was sent overseas for further formation and studies. His ordination in Baguio, The Philippines, on 18 March 1955, marked the beginning of what was to prove a rich and varied life of ministry.

The following year he went to Rome for studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he took out a doctorate in spiritual theology, after which he headed to Vietnam.

In 1976, he became the episcopal vicar of Taipei and in 1979 was made bishop of Hualien.

From there he moved to Kaohsiung and remained as the archbishop until retirement in 2006.

Cardinal Shan is remembered as a man with the common touch.

Soon after he arrived in Taiwan he was appointed president of the Kuangchi Television Programme Service, a prolific producer of much-acclaimed life-education programmes for children and young people.

A retired programme director named Chen remembers feeling sorry for him. “Poor him, he came straight from school, he was director of St. Ignatius High School here in Taipei and knew nothing about television,” AsiaNews quoted Chen as recalling.

He related how he went to his office on the day he arrived and held a brick in front of him. “A simple brick, like the ones you use for building,” Chen explained. “I put it on his desk and asked him, ‘What is this?’”

A flustered Father Shan replied, “A brick!”

He then asked the bewildered programme director if he needed a new studio, who explained that the simple things of life can inspire a thousand stories if you have the creativity to be able to tell them.

Father Shan got the point and went off to England to learn how to do it and raise funds to finance his new work.

Chen said that he believes it was those years that gave him the common touch for which he is so lovingly remembered.

“He learned to use simple language, accessible to people, abandoning the exclusively cultural terminology that he had acquired working in schools,” he explained.

Although he lived a rich and creative life as a bishop of the Church, it is his ministry as a man stricken with a life-threatening disease that he is most remembered for today.

In 1988 he was the general rapporteur of the Special Assembly for Asia of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome, where he pushed for invitations to be issued to two bishops from China.

In the wash up they could not come, but their empty chairs served as a reminder to the whole Asian Church that their brothers and sisters in China could not join them.

That same year Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal and he was later a prominent figure in the Vatican Commission for the Church in China.

But an American Jesuit from the media world in Taiwan said that the amazing thing about his life was the extraordinary visibility among the common people he achieved after he learned that he was seriously ill.

He said that rather than getting him down, or allowing it to morally defeat him, it was the beginning of one of the most fruitful times of his life.

Between November 2007 up to April this year, when he became too weak to continue, he gave 219 talks on death and life, always giving his priority to the medical profession, those in prison and people of all religions.

AsiaNews quoted a monk from a Buddhist temple as recalling, “He always cared for and was involved in the cause of interreligious dialogue and became a constant reference point in Taiwan and the Chinese world in general.

He also told of his dedication to the aboriginal people of the island, describing him as always fighting in defence of the weakest and poorest in society.

In the many talks the cardinal gave around Taiwan, he spoke of the path to the farewell to life and the experience of returning to childhood, first on a physical level and then through total dependency on others.

He repeatedly addressed the question, “Why is this happening to me?” then developed it into a further question, “Why shouldn’t it happen to me?”

He approached his illness not as a condemnation, but as an opportunity and God-given gift that allowed him to open up to others as a friend, letting his weakness speak for him and revealing what he always described as the simplicity of Christian faith, “Just one word, love, because God is love and the nature of God is immense love.”

Oswald Cardinal Gracias, the secretary general of the Asian Federation of Bishops’ Conferences, said, “The cardinal never gave up his mission to reconcile the Church in China and bring the word of God, not even during his battle with cancer.”

He recalled him “as a man who has served the Church with joy and dedication” and as a “guide that instilled confidence.”

While Cardinal Shan may have had the gentle touch of a Chinese gentleman, it was he who provoked Pope John Paul II over the backlash from Beijing when the Vatican chose October 1, the anniversary of the declaration of the People’s Republic of China, as the feast day of the Chinese Martyrs.

AsiaNews reported the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, as recalling how three days after the canonisation in 2000, Cardinal Shan told the pope that the Chinese saints were suffering a second martyrdom, but this time in Rome.

Catholic Chinese communities across the world were asked by their embassies to tone down their celebrations of the canonisation and to confine them to church property to keep them out of the public eye.

Beijing launched a fierce campaign against the canonisation, the reverberations of which may still be in the air today.

The China Post in Taipei said that Cardinal Shan had been admitted to hospital on August 20 suffering complications caused by pneumonia.

UCA News reported that one of his last wishes was to be reunited with his 88-year-old sister on the mainland whom he had not seen since 1979, when Chinese authorities last granted him permission to enter the country.

However, he did manage to contact her and other relatives by telephone before he lost consciousness.

Early this year, some months after being refused a visa to travel to China, he stood in sight of the mainland and waved good-bye to his sister and relatives, as well as the land of his birth.

Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan said he would try and make arrangements for his sister to travel to Taiwan for his funeral.

Both Ma Ying-jeou, the president of Taiwan, and Sean Chen, the premier, paid tribute to Cardinal Shan. Cabinet spokesperson, Hu Wei-yu, called him a public role model.

The Buddhist organisation, Dharma Drum Mountain, was set to make an award to the cardinal this month for his special contribution to life education in the country.

Master Guo Dong said that it will still go ahead and make the award posthumously.

The body of Cardinal Shan will lie in state at the curia in Taipei until arrangements can be made for his funeral.

Archbishop Hung added, “The cardinal asked for a simple funeral with a paschal candle, a bible and a coffin of the poor, as he wished to be poor at the end.”

Pope Benedict XVI said in tribute, “In joining you and all who mourn him, including his Jesuit confreres, I commend his priestly soul to the infinite mercy of God our loving Father.”

May he rest in peace.


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