WASHINGTON — For close to 70 years, the Catholic Church has been quietly involved on the island of Taiwan, working in the vineyards as an existential geopolitical question about the island’s status — is it an independent nation or a piece of mainland China? — hums in the background.

When President Jimmy Carter decided to relocate the U.S. embassy from Taiwan’s capital of Taipei to China’s Beijing in 1979, the U.S. sided with the Communist Party and the so-called “One China” policy.

Now, the U.S. appears to be shifting its allegiance toward Taipei: On Dec. 12, President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including assurances that the U.S. remains committed to Taiwan’s independence, even a “sense of Congress” that the U.S. and Taiwan should hold joint military exercises.

“The U.S. should be more forthright about our obligations to defend Taiwan, and, of course, it is time to get rid of the ‘One China’ policy,” analyst Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, told the Register. “It has not served the U.S. well.”

But in response to the NDAA, a Chinese embassy official said the day an American naval ship docks in a Taiwanese harbor is the day the Chinese army “unifies” Taiwan by force — a startling reminder that China counts Taiwan as an upstart province.

The prospect of conflict is especially surreal when ties between China and Taiwan exist on every level: historical, cultural, economic and religious.

To this day, many men and women religious in Taiwan are engaged in outreach to the Church in China.

 

Beijing Outreach

Scores of religious orders, which fled Chinese communism and landed in Taiwan in the late 1940s, expected to return to the mainland within a few years, which did not happen.

Their successors, albeit in reduced numbers, continue to focus much attention on the Catholic Church in China.

In a building in Taipei full of Catholic organizations works a woman religious who spent decades restoring communication with sisters left on the mainland.

Born in Taiwan to parents who arrived with the 1949 exodus, she began traveling to China in 1982, disguised as a laywoman, in search of elderly religious sisters in Beijing and Shanghai, who had been in Catholic communities that were forced to close. (Taiwan-born descendants of Chinese who fled have little problem visiting the mainland to see relatives or scout for investments.)

“I searched for these sisters and found 100 of them, ages 66 to 90 years. Most have died now, but they were at peace,” she said solemnly, unwilling to be named in order to protect her long-term project.

One of her trips to Beijing occurred in May 1989.

She gained access to a circle of students on a hunger strike at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square and visited daily. She said many average people were sending food and money to the students to sustain them.

Then, in the middle of the night June 3-4, while staying with elderly sisters in a house near the square, she heard machine-gunfire.

“At 5am, we went out. We saw dead bodies; blood on the ground where people had been shot; mostly young soldiers, who were not from the city. They were brought from Mongolia for this butchery,” remembered the nun sorrowfully. “I was so, so, so sorry.”

She made her way to the airport by bike and foot and escaped back to Taiwan the next day.

 

Bridge-Church and a Saintly Diplomat

St. John Paul II gave a special assignment to Taiwan’s Catholic Church in 1984: “this wonderful task of being a bridge-Church for your mainland compatriots,” providing resources for the Chinese faithful, especially training priests and women religious, and charity for all.

The saint was, in fact, publicly revealing supportive activities many in Taiwan’s Catholic community had been pursuing already for years.

With the ascent of Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping, the reopening of Christian churches, and the release of many priests from labor camps in the late 1970s, new hope for Catholicism in China was born.

One of the first to seize St. John Paul II’s challenge was his close collaborator, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who sent sisters from the Missionaries of Charity to Taiwan that year. She was well aware of the complex relations between Taiwan and China.

She visited Taiwan herself in January 1985. Invited to the island by former President Chang Kai-shek’s son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, she visited Taipei and Tainan.

A few days later, in Beijing, she was the guest of Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, a disability activist, but was unable to get permission to plant “tabernacles” in China. Local pundits think Mother Teresa was serving as a possible intermediary between Taipei and Beijing on behalf of the Pope. According to UCANews, she also met Deng Xiaoping.

Combining charity in Taiwan with political outreach in Beijing, Mother Teresa was the ultimate cross-strait Catholic diplomat of the 1980s. Yet even the saint was ultimately disappointed not to achieve a breakthrough in the Middle Kingdom.

 

Verbiest Foundation

The Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was founded in the 19th century by a Belgian diocesan priest with an eye on China.

Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, 86, a missionary with the congregation, began visiting China soon after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms gave greater space for religious practice. St. John Paul II, eager for information especially on the official Church, summoned Father Heyndrickx for personal updates.

In 1982, Father Heyndrickx founded the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation — named after a 17th-century Flemish Jesuit missionary, astronomer and adviser to the emperor during the Qing Dynasty — to do research and provide support, especially to priests and women religious. It has offices in Taipei and at KU Leuven (the rebranded Catholic University of Leuven).

This year, Claretian Father Francisco Carin, 49, took over as the foundation’s director, with ongoing support from Father Heyndrickx.

Father Carin is the delegate superior for the East Asia Delegation of the Congregation of Missionaries, Sons of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, best known as “Claretians” after the order’s founder, St. Anthony Mary Claret.

While still a seminarian, Father Carin, a native of Madrid, was sent to Taiwan in memory of the Claretian martyrs of Barbastro, who were killed during the Spanish Civil War and beatified by St. John Paul II in 1992.

The order’s superior asked for volunteers for China to honor martyrs who had hoped to go on mission to Anhui Province in the east, where the order was established in 1929. Father Carin’s letter offering himself was the first received. Eventually, five Claretians comprised the mission team in the 1990s.

In Taiwan, as a student and then as a missionary, he learned Mandarin and served the local Church. Later, he was appointed to Beijing, where he earned a doctorate in religious studies from the Normal University in Beijing.

“So I studied religion from a strictly Marxist perspective,” he laughingly told the Register. “One professor even let me help him teach sessions on Catholicism.”

The cheerful priest said the hardest thing about living in China is that you must always have a certain “wall up,” and it is difficult to fully trust other people. Although the priests are not in hiding and serve in the government-recognized Catholic community, the government is suspected of always engaging in surveillance.

 

Caritas Initiatives

Caritas Taiwan director Sister Emma Lee is a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Among numerous initiatives, she oversees teams providing outreach to Catholic communities on the mainland.

“In rural areas, when the harvest is done, many women are at home, and the priest calls them to the parish for talks on things like communication in the family,” said the energetic sister.

“Women in villages have a high rate of suicide by taking poison, so our purpose is to teach about human dignity. It’s sensitive. How can she [a wife] learn to tell her husband he is smoking 24 hours a day and it is harming her,” Sister Emma continued.

“We offer values education that applies to all situations, so the diocese is happy to invite us” for classes focusing on adults and children in the summer, she explained.

She continued, “The young people are playing videos and cellphone games, but they are empty inside, so our ‘values educators’ use games and arts” to make religion relevant.

According to Sister Emma, in Catholic villages, people do not typically divide themselves between the “registered,” or open Church members, and unofficial, or “underground” ones — a description of Catholicism in China often reflected in mainstream media.

But Caritas does not restrict its activities to Catholic communities. One staffer described bringing supplies to remote mountain villages without running water — or traditions of cleanliness.

“We met children 7 years old who had never brushed their teeth, so we started teaching hygiene — bringing towels, toothbrushes, soap, toiletries,” said Paul, a retired factory manager, who now works full time for Caritas. “Of course, we helped with other supplies, including a big truck. But it was so satisfying to see villagers changing health habits after a few years.”

 

Migrant Workers

“Share the Journey” is the tagline of a Caritas program to support migrant workers, one of the fastest-expanding Catholic ministries across Asia. Caritas Taiwan serves economic migrants, especially from the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

Maryknoll Father Joyalito (“Joy”) Tajonera, 58, shepherds the Ugnayan Migrant and Immigrant Center in Taipei and a similar ministry in the city of Taichung, focusing mainly on Filipino migrant workers, the majority of whom are factory workers, as well as caregivers, fishermen and construction workers.

“Because of their love for their families, they are being forced out [of the Philippines] to find jobs to support their families,” the priest said.

“The Ugnayan Center — which means ‘being connected’ in Tagalog — is staffed completely by hundreds of volunteers, who are themselves migrants,” Father Tajonera explained.   

With a chapel, library, kitchen, common room, classroom and rest areas, it is an authentic community center for people at risk of being profoundly marginalized.

In Taichung, “Our migrant ministry started in a restaurant, with a dining table as the altar,” remembered Father Joy. “I always remind people: ‘Don’t worry; God will provide!’ And he does.”

The ministry provides Catholic faith formation, skills and leadership training, and social-service programs, including a shelter for those in trouble and coordination with other Catholic groups to lobby the government and improve workers’ lives.

This migrant ministry, coordinating with other Catholic organizations, including Caritas, has brought Church in frequent touch with the government, as the Church lobbies for reform such as a mandatory day off for migrant workers — a day on which to attend Mass — a priority even for the Holy See’s top diplomats.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of Taiwanese citizens find work in China: In 2013, some 450,000 workers spent more than half the year earning money on the mainland.

 

Chinese Pilgrims

Father Willy Ollevier, of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is a parish priest at the Chinese Martyrs Sanctuary in New Taipei City.

At the church are relics of Chinese martyrs and saints. Father Ollevier and local evangelizers eagerly share the story of faith on the mainland and the many who have suffered in the name of God and the Church.

St. John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs May 1, 2000, famously inspiring the fury of the communist Chinese government.

In 2016, for the Year of Mercy, the sanctuary was one of five pilgrimage sites with a “holy door” in Taiwan, and Father Ollevier was a designated “missionary of mercy.”

Unexpectedly, the second-largest number of pilgrims (after visitors from Taiwan) last year came from mainland China.

The Chinese Catholic pilgrims wanted “to walk through the holy doors and seek me out for confession,” Father Ollevier told UCANews — certainly a beautiful departure from the long history of tension between China and Taiwan.

 

St. John Paul II and Dialogue

According to Father Heyndrickx, who first discussed China with St. John Paul II one-on-one in 1980, the saint’s commitment to negotiation in order to achieve unity was rock solid.

“When it came to China, Pope John Paul was very low-key and open to dialogue. He said we must do whatever possible to get into dialogue with the Chinese government and keep the dialogue going, even after Tiananmen Square, even when the Communists elevated five bishops illicitly [without approval from the Holy See],” the missionary told the Register.

“He gave Taiwan a special task, to be a bridge-builder, supporting the larger goal of unity with the Catholic Church in China,” Father Heyndrickx said, “and a lot has been contributed by the Taiwan Church.”

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on the state of the Catholic Church in Korea (here and here), Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an

award-winning international

correspondent and a

contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine,

The American Spectator and

the Washington Examiner.