Missionaries in Taiwan: like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants
di Donato Contuzzi *
Instead of the “mission of the Church”, it’s better to refer to it as “the Church of the mission”. In a place that is so ignorant to Christ, it is nearly impossible to consider the mission as something extrinsic or as a duty. It is much more natural to consider it an identity that I live with
The Republic of China known to most as Formosa or Taiwan, is a tropical island in Southeast Asia, East of China, not much bigger than Sicily, with mountains that reach 4000 meters and about 23 million inhabitants. Chinese land, culture and history contribute to the complex political history of Taiwan, making the island of Formosa as per its ancient Portuguese name, one of the most complex cases in modern international politics. Its constitution maintains the old name Republic of China (R.O.C.) born from the ashes of the millenary empire that disintegrated in 1912. At the end of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) fought between Mao Ze Dong’s communist troops and General Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist troops, the latter, already defeated found refuge on the island of Formosa, and declared Taipei the new capital of the Republic of China, while he attempted to regain control over the territories lost to the communist troops. On the other hand, the Beijing government has never stopped claiming its rights on this “rebel island”, turning the slogan “free Taiwan” into a mantra of its political rhetoric.
China has therefore been divided in two for the past sixty years: the largest part governed by the communist party and the other, Taiwan, governed by the nationalist party of Kuo Ming Dang. With Chiang Kai Shek’s death, Taiwan has opened the doors to democracy and transformed itself into a Presidential Democratic Republic with elections by universal suffrage. With its own government, constitution, flag, currency and troops, Taiwan is today totally independent from its Chinese motherland, though only 23 countries recognise it as such: for the rest of the world (USA, Russia, European Union and Asian states) Taiwan remains one of the many Chinese regions.
The national language is Mandarin, a dialect that was spoken by the officials of the Empire in Bejing, known as the Mandarin, and became the official language in China, the Putonghua or common language. It is a very complex language; to give you an idea, each ideogram, which in many cases is a small drawing that expresses an idea, corresponds in sound to a syllable. There are however five accents or ways of reading it and each is connected to a different meaning. The characters together form words or ideas. China has an endless number of dialects which depend on how you pronounce the written language. One of the most famous is Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong and Macau, in the South of China. Taiwan has its own dialect, Taiwanese, spoken in the Fujan region, opposite the island, where the first Chinese came from during the Ming dynasty. Besides Mandarin and Taiwanese, another dialect called Hakka is spoken on the island as well as the language of the original twelve aboriginal tribes who lived here before the Chinese came. The Taiwanese and Chinese mentality have been influenced for over two thousand years by the teachings of Confucius and his disciples. Confucianism is not so much a religion but rather a moral code that helps maintain order in your personal life, family life and society in general.
Modern society is also rooted in a more Western secularised mentality that has different ideals based on hedonism and wealth. Abortion is a very common practice, used as birth control. The population growth has stalled, pointing towards a progressively older population.
Saint John Paul II described the situation very well in Redemptoris Missio when he stated: “Our times are both momentous and fascinating. While on the one hand people seem to be pursuing material prosperity and to be sinking ever deeper into consumerism and materialism, on the other hand we are witnessing a desperate search for meaning, the need for an inner life, and a desire to learn new forms and methods of meditation and prayer. Not only in cultures with strong religious elements, but also in secularized societies, the spiritual dimension of life is being sought after as an antidote to dehumanization" (JOHN PAUL II, Redemptoris missio, Encyclical Letter, 38, 7 December 1990).
This is why religion is such an interesting aspect of Taiwanese society: the most popular traditions are Taoism and Buddhism. Taoism originated in China. Its founder Lao Zi (Old Master) is often compared to Confucius. While the latter was a moralistic political philosopher who dealt with practical issues, Lao Zi was more meditative, a spirit closet to our stoic philosophers. The religion commonly referred to as Taoist, takes the shape of popular tradition that expresses itself in a number of rites and ceremonies to gain the favour of the many divinities it encompasses with the purpose to win fortune, health, and wealth. You can ask anything of the Gods, money, a beautiful bride, a rich husband, a son to continue the family lineage etc.
Buddhism instead, is a religion born outside of China, namely in India and it is therefore considered as a Western religion for the people of the Middle Kingdom. A famous Chinese novel Journey to the West, talks indeed about a journey to India. Buddhism has grown in China over the centuries and has played a decisive role in its history and culture.
The Catholic presence
The Catholic Church has been present on the island for little over 150 years, although the first missionaries arrived on the island of Formosa in the XVI century. We are a small minority with just over 1% of Catholics and a total 4% of Christians.
It is a relatively young Church that reflects a certain level of inexperience as well as a freshness of the spirit and vitality, which ooze new enthusiasm. Christianity is finding its roots in Taiwan thanks to the seed brought by the Holy Sprit through the work of the many missionaries who have travelled here over the years and continue to water that little seedling that thanks to the Grace of God, is growing. (Cfr. 1 Cor 3,6).
Part of this rich missionary tradition is our Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St.Charles Borromeo, founded on 14 September 1985 by Fr. Massimo Camisasca within the movement Communion and Liberation founded by Fr. Luigi Giussani.
Camisasca and a small group of priests wished to carry out the task John Paul II had assigned to Communion and Liberation in September 1984 during a special audience to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Movement. “Go into all the world” said the Pope “to bring the truth, beauty and peace, that are encountered in Christ the Redeemer”.
The Fraternity of St. Charles has 26 houses in four continents with at least three priests in each house. At the centre of our mission is a shared life that allows us to experience the beauty, truth and peace that only Christ can give.
We are brothers through baptism and the Christian life we have experienced through the charism of Fr. Giussani. We are priests thanks to God’s will who has called us to serve him by means of this exceptional life. We are also missionaries, meaning we are sent to share the graces received with other men; ‘freely ye have received, freely give’ (cfr. Mt 10,8).
There are currently four members in our house in Taipei: Fr. Paolo Costa arrived 17 years ago, Fr. Emanuele Angiola has been here for 7 years, Fr. Antonio Acevedo for 3 and I arrived in Taiwan 6 years ago.
Our mission evolves around three main areas: parishes, university and care of the CL community.
Through the years we have been assigned two parishes very close to one another that we serve as priests. They are very small in comparison to the Italian ones but they very lively and intimate.
Three of us teach Italian language and culture at the Catholic university in Fujen. As for the rest of the country, the majority of the students and teachers at university are not Catholic and do not know Christ. Being there is a great opportunity to share the first announcement of the salvation that Jesus brings to our life.
Then there is the community of the Movement, born over 20 years ago from the Giuliano family who had been sent here by Fr. Giussani. The Taiwanese members are of different age and background, a mix of university students and adults of different religions, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Toist and atheist brought together by a friendship that originates in Christ, although this is not yet clear to some.
On the shoulders of giants
Missionaries are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, part of a history that was before us, whose fruits we enjoy. But we also work for it to continue being by involving the hearts of those God calls to him. Here is the greatest example.
On the 6th of November 1980 a group of about 20 people decided to walk in the area of Wu Feng Qi peak, which is 1000m above sea level. Five of them decided to speed up in order to return to Taipei earlier as they had to work the next day. After asking the guide for information they left alone and got lost. Time went by, the sky got darker and then night fell. As they started to panic, they saw a female figure dressed in white descending from a flight of steps on the left hand-side. Fear dissipated to leave room for overwhelming peace. The lady accompanied them to the path back and disappeared. The 5 Taiwanese, all Buddhist, had no idea who this lady was. They went back to the same location after a couple of days to look for the steps or any other sign, but found nothing. They only recognised her afterwards, when they saw a statue of Holy Mary in a Catholic church. They decided to erect a small statue in the place of the apparition with a small plaque dedicated to Mary. Only some of them converted to Christianity.
This event was officially recognised by the local church and a beautiful shrine was built, enhanced by the beautiful natural setting typical of Asian countries with green mountain tops, waterfalls and a splendid view of the ocean.
This is one of the very rare apparitions of Holy Mary to non- Christians. The Virgin Mary, symbol of the Church, shows 5 Buddhists the way home, saving their lives. This is a vivid image of what the mission of the Church is.
A place for shelter and revival
Actually, instead of the mission of the Church I would refer to it as the Church of the mission. As I live in a place that is so ignorant to Christ, it is nearly impossible to consider the mission as something extrinsic or as a duty. It is much more natural to consider it for what it really is, namely an identity that I live with. Every morning I leave home and walk through the local market that hosts our little parish church and I am reminded of who I am, to Whom I belong, and why I am here.
Being Christian means being missionaries for we belong to the body of Christ. “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church”. (PAUL VI, Evangelization in the Modern World, Apostolic Exhoration, 14, 8 December 1975).
Fr. Giussani wrote: “Jesus Christ was sent to encompass all, which is why we are now sure we may all be one…but this truth has not yet been completely realised through history. This is why those who partake in the communion of the Church, also partake in the mission of Christ”.
To be a missionary, means objectively belonging to Christ through the Church. Feeding this self-consciousness daily is what I feel is the most radical task in my mission. The strong winds of the pagan society we live in require a deeply rooted faith; otherwise even the most beautiful missionary fruit will not withstand time.
Speaking of the education of young people to the mission, Fr. Giussani said that we first need to educate them to a deep interest for the Christian experience in all its facets and intensity.
This is what I receive from the Movement and from the Fraternity of St. Charles; this is what feeds my conscience to be part of the mission of Christ in Taiwan. From such consciousness derives a sense of gratitude for the preference God has for me. It is like a glass that the Grace of God keeps refilling. Sooner or later it will spill over, touching the things and people who are close.
I remember very well the day I arrived. It was the 22nd of August 2012, the day of my birthday. As I left the plane full of trepidation and fear and went to the waiting room at the airport, one of my brothers appeared from a corner and welcomed me by putting a garland of flowers around my neck and hugging me full of joy. At that moment I thought: “I am here to share this joy with those I meet”.
The urgency for the mission generates from an experience of fullness. “The missionary strength of the Church is first and foremost in the power of its unity and in the fascination felt by those around it. Its impulse to bear witness till the ends of the world, comes from within rather than from an external need or request”.
In this sense, it is extraordinary to see how those who are baptised as adults are full of this missionary fire because they are full of joy and gratitude. It allows us to see the most dynamic side of the catholicity of the Church, which is nothing other than the extension of an already present and lively sense of communion.
Nourishing the communion
What nourishes the communion?
Firstly, prayer and silence. Fr. Giussani educated his young followers to a life of prayer as a form of constant dialogue. In the house we dedicate more than two hours a day to prayers and meditation, to Eucharistic adoration and to the Liturgy of the Hours. We do this together. I often think during the adoration that that specific moment is indeed highly symbolic of our being here - together in front of Christ who calls us to him.
Meditating on the Scriptures, the lives of the saints and other books on spirituality is the simplest way to feed the personal dialogue with God in the great river that is the history of the Church.
“No one will take your joy from you (John 16,23). Belonging to Christ is an experience of fulfilment. He satisfies our desire without quenching it, because only thus He can feed it to infinity. Therefore belonging to Him does not entrap us but rather opens us to everything and anybody.[…] it is an adventure that only those who belong to somebody can experience. Only those who know they are loved aren’t scared of desire, risk, and understanding. He is certain that any meeting, any situation and any face are an opportunity to rediscover, enjoy and love even more that deep connection at the core of it”.
Jesus himself lived this dynamic in the relationship with the Father. He, who was sent, was in continuous dialogue with his sender through his daily experiences. Such dialogue normally took the shape of daily opportunities to meet people but also required moments of silent prayer on a mountain away from all.
A second source of nourishment for the communion is sharing time and space. Being sent together for us is not a strategic choice. It could even be seen as a waste of energy, for the energy is entirely concentrated in one place. Living together creates a space for joyous occasions and personal conversion. We are not together to collaborate but rather to give one to the other, also through collaboration.
If a first aspect of a Christian’s missionary identity is to perceive ourselves as part of the body of Christ and therefore of His mission in the world, a second aspect is to perceive ourselves as sent together. It is no longer I but we who nourish our missionary passion, which if it is alive, it is already expressed in the house.
“The mission starts right away, in the place where we are, amongst the people we are called to live with. How can we communicate our faith to men from other nations and culture if we cannot share it with those who are close? How can we recognise what the people we meet in other places need, if we cannot recognise what those close to us need?”. Jesus never left his country. He lived the infinite passion for life of any man in history and lived for a short time in a confined space, nursing firstly the relationship with a few people, namely the apostles, with the objective to reach all.
For this reason we try to nourish life amongst us by dedicating time to sharing judgments, meals and free time. We steal a little time from the mission outside the house in order to go back to the origins, a little bit like a constant pruning that allows a plant to grow better and root deeply.
For us, the mission means opening the doors of our house to invite those we meet on our journey and be part of this communion that God has gifted us with.
The mission as an event of conversion
What happens when we open the door? Who do we meet outside?
As I tried to explain, the places we are sent to are rather different between each other. In general we can say that the mission in Taiwan is a first proclamation of Christ to those who do not know him or know him very little.
What to aim for? Where to start from?
These questions accompany us every day and we never stop answering them.
The Church is the live body of Christ who continues to meet men and be tempted by each of them, even those who are further away, as witnessed by the meeting with the Canaanite Woman described in the Gospel (Cf. Mt 15,21-28).
Fr. Giussani once said. “Tradition and discourse, tradition and Christian culture, tradition and theology, and if you will, tradition and Christian doctrine create forms. Christianity is something else, even though it is clear that it comprises all of the above… Being Christian is articulating forms, but Christianity is an event” . (L.GIUSSANI, Spiritual Exercises, Varigotti, 1 November 1968)
The word event is at the heart of Giussani’s definition of Christianity and as a consequence of our missionary method. He continued:
“What was that event, and what type of event? They didn't simply believe because Christ spoke and said certain things, nor because of the miracles; they didn't simply believe because Christ was citing the Prophets, nor because he resurrected the dead. Many people, the majority in fact, heard the words being spoken, saw him performing miracles but did not experience the event. Those who believed, did so because of a presence which carried a proposal; it was that specific person, who spoke in a certain way, who acted a certain way… it was that presence full of a proposal, full of meaning and with an irreducible sense of novelty”.
What brings peace and love to our lives in the mission is first and foremost the certainty of being carried by Christ, of being a simple means to convey an event, a meeting, a sparkle that He and only He can ignite in the heart of the people we meet. The focus is therefore not a strategy but a confidence that that God will not abandon the work He has begun (Cf Philippians 1). “It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is He who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is He who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood” (PAUL VI, Evangelization in the Modern World, Apostolic Exhortation, 14, 8 December 1975).
This is also what allows us to be patient in life. You have to wait for one another for a number of years if necessary, without expecting much and without getting tired, until our freedom meets the timings of God. Some of our students have asked to be baptised after 10 years from the first encounter, others who know us for longer haven’t asked yet. In Miguel Manara, Milosz has one of his characters say that love and haste never go hand in hand. Through patience, you measure love.
This does not exonerate us from the responsibility of reflecting on our missionary action, the areas on which to invest, the methods and the path to follow; quite the opposite, it increases the urgency to do so. “A proclamation stands for the presence of a person fully involved in the meaning of the world and of life. For this reason the word proclamation is reminiscent of another word, the word conversion.
The mission is therefore a means through which God calls me to convert to Him, by involving those he wishes me to meet in the Movement. “The passion for men is nothing other than another aspect of the passion for ourselves” .
The mission as passion for the individual
Such passion for men generates a desire to be as close as possible to them, as professed by St. Paul to be made all things to all men (cf.1 Cor 9,22). In this sense the fact I arrived in Taiwan on the day of my birthday is symbolic. As missionaries we are in fact called to be reborn in the location we are sent to, by learning the local language, customs and traditions with curiosity but also with a critical eye.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with a Swiss missionary who is nearly ninety and has been living in Taiwan for 55 years. When I asked him what advice he would give to a missionary who had only recently arrived he said: “you need to be humble and listen to all things and all men”. It is very important to commit to learning the language and to be open to understanding cultural differences.
The impression when you arrive here is that you truly are in another world. The writings are actually little stylised drawings, incomprehensible to a foreigner; the food and the scents are completely different from ours, you don't use cutlery but chop sticks, children are not carried at the front but on your back, the rhythm of work is frenetic and there are completely different traditional celebrations.
Those who are less open-minded may react by closing up in front of the difficulties of having to learn everything from the start, changing habits and inclinations. What allows us to be open-minded and embrace the strain of change?
I remember the first months of my Chinese language classes. What stimulated me the most and continues to stimulate me in my studies is the desire to meet people and be able to speak with them.
Sometimes after a homily or a meeting I feel a little down because I have not been able to express what I wanted to say or because I made a mistake in reading some of the characters. When I feel like that, somebody usually comes along and compliments me for my Chinese or thanks me for something I have said. It may just be a way to encourage me but they clearly perceive my commitment as an important sign of love for this earth and for their lives.
It is therefore essential to become part of their lives discretely and with an open mind. It is very important to spend time with people, talking to them and listening to their queries. In this sense, the times when we pray together in the house of a parishioner for example are very significant, as is free time spent together.
You also have to spend time studying history and local culture. Understanding the past helps a lot in reading the present and understanding people, their behaviour and expressions, which would otherwise be incomprehensible to us foreigners. During the week, we spent time individually and with the community, to delve into historical and cultural themes by reading certain texts or inviting experts to hold lectures. This also allows us to form an opinion on this reality that could be useful to those who come after us.
The announcement of Christ represents our own personal involvement with Him and this involvement is expressed first and foremost through the passion for each of the faces we find in front of us. The passion for Christ and the passion for men nourish each other and are fundamentally inseparable. The passion for men is Christ’s sentiment, the way in which He relates to each man and of which we are object and subject at the same time.
This is a fundamental point of the Christian and missionary method: God has chosen to communicate Christianity from person to person; this is the method he chose and lived to reveal himself fully to all men in history. This is particularly true in locations like this. You cannot think to convert entire groups of people; on the contrary, we need to be completely open to give ourselves entirely to the face that God places in front of us at a particular moment in time. “Is there perhaps a different form to present the Gospel that imparts to others our experience of faith?” (PAOLO VI, Evangelization in the Modern World, Apostolic Exhoration, 14, 8 December 1975).
This reminds us to what Saint Teresa of Calcutta answered when asked what could be done for all the poor of the world. She said something along the lines of “I can only serve one person at a time and that person in that moment represents Christ”; and again: “It is like a huge sea, but let’s you and I start to do what we can and to give our time without thinking about how to reach all”.
The result of such commitment could easily be something not ‘concrete’ – for us the only tangible attitude is the attention towards a person, taking that person into consideration, namely love. I, myself, have been subjected to love in first person.
A few days after my arrival my brothers were leaving for Italy and left me to look after the house and the parish. While I was on the way home from the airport I realised that the next 2 weeks would be difficult as I didn't know the place at all and I didn’t know the language. I arrived home worried about what to do. After a few minutes the bell rang ‘here we go’ I thought. I opened the door and a friend I met a few days earlier is standing there making signs and indicating some chopsticks to invite me for dinner. We had a great time, fundamentally communicating through sign language. As I was going home I thought: “The passion towards others can be so strong that it overcomes any linguistic barrier and allows us to communicate truth, beauty and peace that we encounter through Jesus Christ directly to the heart”.
I also spoke of difficulties because in a culture like this, you can easily find yourself in situations which are against God and therefore against men. For example, one of the most severe plagues is abortion. Although Taiwan is a free country and under no regime, the birth rate is one of the lowest in the world and abortion is extremely widespread. The painful consequences of this atrocity are very evident in how fragile families are. Not giving a clear message on such an important issue as well as on others present in the country would evidently be a grave shortcoming. Christ is truth and charity in truth.
The mission as sharing of oneself
The university where we teach is the most privileged environment where the first Christian announcement happens. We are in daily contact with students and teachers, the majority of which have maybe heard about Christ but have never had the opportunity to know Him.
The passion for each of them is certainly a gift of God that I ask Him to grant me every day as I drive my moped to the university, for example. I take my teachings very seriously and I pay attention to each student, trying to learn each of their names and talking to them during the breaks; this is the first way in which I develop a passion for them.
We offer students a weekly meeting, during which we share our life by focusing on important themes such as friendship, pain, study, family etc. The meeting is referred to as School of Community or “ray”, depending on the denomination chosen by Fr. Giussani since the beginning of the movement. It is a meeting guided by one of us, which begins with a selection of songs based on the theme and followed by a dialogue that arises from either questions or a movie seen together.
We talk about something that is close to our heart and of how we face life. The tales of the students often tell of grave personal and family dramas but also of the joy to have found a place where they can share and be heard. At the end of the meeting we draw a few conclusions in a more or less explicit way and suggest an opinion on the specific theme that takes inspiration from the vision of life we have learnt in the Church.
When we ask students why they choose to spend two or three hours per week to take part in our meetings and the dinner that follows, some tell us they feel good within the group and find a different type of joy from that which is felt amongst their friends; others tell us they are happy to discuss topics that are normally avoided because they are considered too ‘serious’; and others join us because they are attracted by the beauty of the songs. This is a testament that with us they experience something different, an experience they find difficult to describe specifically. Some explicitly say they would like to know Jesus better so we invite them to catechism for adults. They embark on a journey whose natural conclusion - though never taken for granted - is baptism, on Easter night.
In our work with the students we realise how much Christ reveals man to himself, as Mario Vittorini said: “When I met Christ I discovered myself a man”. Such discovery happens as part of a personal experience, using reason openly and truly for an in depth understanding. Often, we simply help the students to judge their life experiences, to not look at themselves superficially and to ask themselves in all seriousness why things happen. In his first hour of teaching at Liceo Berchet in Milan, Fr. Giussani told his students: “I am not here so that you can pretend my ideas to be yours, but to teach you a true method to judge the things I will tell you”. Just like him back then, we try to “awaken a sense of judgment in the youth of today, the need for truth, justice, and happiness that are the foundations of their heart, so that they may understand the correspondence of the Christian message with their fundamental questions”. They are amazed when they confide in us their sense of dissatisfaction despite the fact they are fundamentally well and healthy, and we tell them that this is a sign of humanity: “They all told me not to think about it too much and not to ask too many questions, but you are saying you experience the same and tell me it is a deeply human experience!”. Educating them not to neglect themselves and to have a positive outlook of themselves is the most rewarding aspect of what we do.
Students from different faculties take part in our meetings but the majority of them attend classes in the department of Italian language and culture, that we three teach. This can at times create a little embarrassment, particularly for those who are not bright students. When they realise our friendship goes over and beyond their academic performance they are generally amazed. Young people, whether within the family or in society, often feel judged on the basis of their results, or money earned and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these are the true criteria. Meeting people, who make them feel valued simply for their presence and not for what they can give or perform is in their eyes a small revolution.
“In the conception of life proclaimed by Christ it is in the image He gives of the true stature of man, it is in His realistic gaze at human beings, it is here where a heart searching for its destiny perceives the truth in the voice of Christ as he speaks. During his existence on earth, Jesus proved a passion for the individual and a passion for the happiness of the individual, which leads us to consider a person’s value as immeasurable and irreducible. The problem of existence of the world is the happiness of each single individual”.
The mission as school of charity
In order to learn the gaze upon man we introduce our students to a weekly gesture we call caritativa or charitable work. We invite them to our house, we prepare lunch and after reading a short text by Fr. Giussani that explains the reasons behind the gesture (The meaning of charitable work) we go together to a local hospice to keep the elderly company, singing for them and chatting. It is a very simple but efficient gesture to communicate the concept of Christ’s gaze upon man. It is not about giving others what we have (time, ability etc) or to resolve their problems but first and foremost a way of learning to live and look at things like Christ.
“The supreme law, that is, of our being is sharing in the life of others, is sharing one’s self. Only Jesus Christ tells us this, because He knows everything. I can thoroughly explain the word ‘charity’ when I think about the fact that the Son of God, out of love for us, did not send us His wealth – as He could have done, changing our situation completely – but He became poor like us, He ‘shared’ our nothingness. We do charitable work to learn to live like Christ”.
The road of charity has always been one of the most efficient in the process of evangelization. It allows us to communicate through gestures rather than words and to participate in the new way of living that Christ shows us. Here in Taiwan the idea of giving one’s time to others is very present within our society. Many people go to hospitals, or similar, to help others. What students discover through charity work is that this is not a random gesture linked to a sense of generosity but a new way of conceiving life, the other and therefore oneself. We saw how important it is to ‘do things with them’, becoming involved in what we propose to them and living as an opportunity to learn for ourselves the value of charitable work.
The mission as a service of the work of an Other
In the parishes that we serve, it is not unusual to announce Christ to people who meet him for the first time. Normally they learn of Christianity through a family member or a friend but it also happens often that people knock on our door or come to church freely and without invitation and ask to know God. This is the Holy Spirit that acts freely and calls upon whom he wants. When episodes like this happen, I realise that my job is to discretely and charitably accompany the work of an Other in His mysterious relationship with each man.
Another way that leads to a meeting with the Catholic Church is the disappearance of a dear one or a family drama. In Chinese culture the cult and respect of the dead is extremely important. Many of our current parishioners have encountered the Church by attending the funeral of a grandparent or a Catholic relation. Liturgy and songs are a simple and efficient way to communicate God’s mystery. Many people who participate to their first Mass say that they experience a great sense of peace in their heart: this is testament that the Holy Spirit acts in the hearts of all.
The catechumenate for adults lasts about a year. It is important to retrace the path to discovery of the great truths with the catechumens. Many times their questions force me to go deeper than what I thought I knew and this way the journey becomes truly common and of the community. Even if some guide and some follow because ‘younger in faith’, what we live is an encounter with Jesus Christ “him who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Ap 1:4).
We cannot take for granted that a Chinese or a Taiwanese should convert. There are a number of obstacles to overcome linked with tradition, popular superstition and the opposition of parents and grandparents who fear a Christian son will no longer take care of them both in life and above all in the afterlife when they will need to feed off the foods offered by their descendants. On Easter night, when during Mass the catechumen receive the sacraments of Christian initiation it is a moment of great joy, the result of God’s work through humble men.
Contemplating this mystery gives us hope and fills us with gratitude. The mission is in this sense participation in a larger body.
Baptism is not just the end point but also the starting point of a journey that will involve difficulties and sacrifices. Being a minority results in difficulties at work and at home that each of us has to bear. Although we live in a free and democratic society the common mentality puts a lot of pressure on Christians as it also happens in the West.
Catholics are at times mocked and attacked by their schoolmates on social and ethical topics and they are not always able to explain their reasons and beliefs. They run the risk of leaving their faith aside in order to conform with the others.
It is important to offer them a place where they can feel part of something bigger, of a live community. Being a minority grows in each of us a need to identify with a visible human place, from which to draw strength and consciousness. Widespread individualism is the antithesis of this new way of living in which the I grows thanks to its belonging to the we. There are many testimonies of parishioners who arouse suspicion in their peers because they feel the need to take part in activities of the community within the parish instead of going out to have fun as before.
Money is the real god in Taiwan and people are willing to sacrifice their lives for money. This means working at a crazy rhythm and putting family and rest last. Mass on a Sunday is often missed because of work commitments.
Within the parish most of our missionary work is to help people examine in depth the meaning of Baptism, allowing the seed sown that day to flourish throughout our daily life. It is very important to shadow the newly baptised, constantly repeating the reasons behind our belief and offering practical gestures to continue to re-discover them.
An important aspect of this ‘shadowing’ is to favour the broadening of the boundaries of our life and our faith. In this sense the pilgrimages to Italy we have organised in many occasions in the last ten years have proven crucial. Many asked to be baptised upon their return, while others rediscovered their faith as they had never experienced it before.
To visit faraway places and feeling a part of them is a unique experience. This is the discovery of the universality of the Church that for many is a result of the meeting with the Successor of Peter or of hearing a song they heard before in Taiwan; for others it is still awakened by visiting places where a great Saint of the Church lived or meeting with a community of men and women who witness the beauty of belonging to Jesus in such a fascinating and faraway country.
These trips are also an opportunity to discover a fundamental aspect of the faith, which is quite absent in the country where I live, namely culture. Understanding how faith can become culture to the point of shaping society is a very important event for a Christian and above all for those who live in countries where social and political life are determined by other criteria and values.
“I did not imagine that the Catholic Church was so big and lively!” said one of the parishioners upon his return from a trip to Italy where he visited Rome, Florence and Assisi and attended the Meeting for the Friendship Amongst Peoples in Rimini. Fr. Giussani has always educated us to the cultural dimension of faith as a form of judging reality critically and systematically. Faith generates culture, because it generates an original gaze on existence that doesn't only concentrate on the person, but becomes words, poetry, literature, a way of living and of thinking about the city.
Education to the universality of the Church also comes from sharing its history or the lives of the Saints and the continuous proposal of content via catechism or social doctrine of the Church. Faith is part of a thousand-year old history deeply rooted in every man and we shouldn't take any of its aspects for granted while educating people.
This is why every week we suggest a catechism that helps analyse faith in depth through verification of our existence. As with the students we always start with a couple of songs and we then read a text and discuss it. It is amazing to see how the consciousness of our Catholic identity grows in time and impacts our daily life. The best example of this is forgiveness, which is not at all common in our culture. For example, we know that culturally, suicide is an extreme form of revenge. Thanks to God it is not rare to hear sentences like “Since I am Catholic I wish to act like Jesus and forgive” this or that person, “Something I would have not thought of years ago”.
The School of Community is a moment to verify our faith and allows those who take part in it to realise the change Christ is generating in their life. It is also a moment for catechesis that allows for many questions on faith arising from daily challenges to be asked.
Since it is a simple and nearly familiar occasion, non-Catholic, Protestants or other religions invited by friends and colleagues, attend the School. By listening to other people’s testimonies we can learn from and share experiences, including us priests who also share our learning and experience.
Those we meet are amazed by the fact that the ministers of the Church are also involved in their own humanity: in the Buddhist and Taoist traditions the priest is considered as somebody detached from the world and every day life, as if being closer to the Divine made them different from others. Christ instead fulfils our humanity by eliminating that sense of unfamiliarity amongst men and by shortening the distance amongst them, asserting their equal dignity.
“Going on a mission does not mean focussing on the needs of a specific place, ignorance, poverty etc but rather becoming entirely part of the Christian community of that place and sharing their aspirations and needs. In this sense, if we appear truly in communion and visibly part of the local community, then being foreigners will only highlight better the universality of Christianity and the strength of charity that creates a bond of total unity amongst people whose different mentalities and nationalistic sentiments would normally divide”.
The mission as a more human friendship
The first work the great missionary Matteo Ricci wished to write in Chinese was a treaty on friendship. It is not by chance that he chose to enter this new world through the door of friendship. This is the simplest way to conquer a heart. How else could we summarise Christianity if not as a friendship through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ? “No longer do I call you servants but friends” (Cf. Gv 15,15). This friendship allows a man to be himself, more able to love and be loved, to work, to give himself, to serve. In a word, it makes him free.
In a wealthy society such as the Taiwanese one, what is missing is not material goods but a humanity transfigured by the presence of God, conscious of its origin and destiny, and of the fact that the desire for infinite truth, kindness, justice and beauty present in people’s heart can find an answer. This answer can be experienced on this earth through an unexplainable communion.
“True liberation consists in opening oneself to the love of Christ. In Him, and only in Him, are we set free from all alienation and doubt, from slavery to the power of sin and death. Christ is truly "our peace" (Eph 2:14); "the love of Christ impels us" (2 Cor 5:14), giving meaning and joy to our life. Mission is an issue of faith, an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us”.
It will take centuries in order for this communion to reach the majority of the people and mould society freeing it from slavery.
The passion of the ninety-year old missionary I referred to above is tangible in the trees, the plants and flowers. When accompanying us around the city he would proudly say: “I planted this tree”. He then took us to his most beautiful of gardens to which he dedicated a lot of time and referring to a splendid tall cedar tree he said: “This is the tree of which I am the proudest”. “I cried with joy because God allows for growth but nobody knows who will taste the fruits”.
This is the meaning of our being here. Sowing the seeds of joy and gratitude, leaving everything else to God, in the certainty that “all things are where they should be and go where they should go: towards a place assigned to it by a Wisdom (Heaven be praised!) that is not ours”.
* nota sull'autore
Fraternità Sacerdotale dei Missionari di San Carlo Borromeo