Taiwan’s hidden ground of love

by on Tuesday, 20 October 2009 Comments
Within the last 17 years, I have experienced many facets of the Catholic Church in Taiwan.

I first settled within the protected grounds of Fu Jen University, where lots of priests, brothers and religious sisters were working. Later on, with much joy and gratitude, I experienced many times the hospitality of aborigine parishes, especially in Hsinchu and Hualien dioceses. I was moved by the sufferings and weaknesses of the social environment in which faith was growing, as well as by the vitality and freshness of its expressions. I delivered Sunday mass for a very small parish in downtown Taipei for eight years, where I am also familiar with the powerful parishes of Tien Educational Center and Holy Family. I met with Filipino communities in Hsinchu, with small local communities in Taichung and Kaohsiung, with students’ chaplaincies and social advocates, doctors and workers, faithful Catholic families from generations on, to young converts.

It is true, however, that my work has had more to do with cultural and intellectual apostolates, meeting society at large, publishing, writing, researching, and debating in the conditions that are those of the cultural market – and this gives me a knowledge of the Taiwanese Church which is less intimate than that of many priests. Still, this double experience – looking at the Church from within and considering it from the society where I work - gives me, I believe, a few insights that I would like to share today.

First, I have seen the Taiwanese Catholic Church grow in quality, if not in quantity. From 1992 on, I have seen more and more laypeople following formation in theology and spirituality, enriching their prayer life, and addressing social challenges. I have seen a Church more diverse in its cultural and political opinions and in the ethnic origins of its leaders. I have seen a greater sensitivity to global challenges and to other Asian churches.

Second, I have the impression that the Church is still relying too much on the clergy, that the latter is still reluctant to abandon its power, and that not enough space is given to the creativity and diversity of Christian groups. More creativity and freedom are indispensible if the church wants to grow – or even simply to live more happily.

Third, I have been struck by the role played by individuals when they dare to play the role they feel called to fulfill. For instance, when layman or religious individuals decide to work toward more interaction between Taiwanese and Filipinos believers, to care for prisoners, or to develop aboriginal liturgies, he or she is quickly able to leave a mark, and often a deep one. So, what we need first and foremost are responsible, decisive individuals, anchored in a life of prayer, with a clear conscience of their gifts. We need individuals who work with tenacity and audacity to the realization of a goal that they deem to be meaningful.

Fourth, the defects of the Church are often the ones of society at large. For instance, obsession with finances and with so-called “management” (often poorly done), along with a hierarchical structure of decision, are not shortcomings proper to the Church. Rather, they reflect how much the Church remains embedded in the values of the society she is called to evangelize. The Church is still not counter-cultural enough…

Is there an antidote to such limitations? In a word, more love - and thus more freedom. “Love, and do what you wish,” used to say Saint Augustine. I think that he meant the following: someone who deploys their power of love is able to see not only the problems of the situation they are engaged in or of the people to be dealt with, but is able to see deeper than such limitations. The individual discerns in the heart, the possibility of an awakening, sees a flame - a very feeble flame maybe, but a flame that is never extinguished – and does what he or she thinks best, guided by this feeble light of the flame in the obscurity of the present. Clever people clearly perceive defects and shortcomings around them. Loving people see beyond such shortcomings, though they might discern them and suffer because of them.

Eventually, what will make the Taiwanese Church grow and bear fruits will be to go again and again to the “school of the heart.” Let us make “apostolic planning” if we have to do so. Let us build institutions. Let us work on formation…but let these tasks all be irrigated by pure love. A love so free and so joyful that the persistent weakness of the Catholic community in Taiwan will not be for us a source of desolation and worries, but rather a call to love even more from the well of an even freer heart.

Photo by B.V. - Tafalong, 2008

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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