On May 23, Pope Francis appointed Thomas Chung An-zu as the new archbishop of Taipei, Taiwan in a move that came just days after Taiwan’s devoutly Catholic vice president, Chen Chien-jen, stepped down from office to return to his career as an epidemiologist.
Located only about 100 miles from mainland China, this island territory of 24 million people (Catholics account for between 1 and 2 percent of the population) largely functions as an independent country, but has never formally declared independence. In fact, one of the few western nations to recognize an independent Taiwan is the Vatican.
Catholic missionaries first came to Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa) in 1626, when Father Bartolome Martinez and five other Dominican priests accompanied a Spanish expedition team. But more than two centuries would elapse before missionaries from the nearby Philippines were able to establish a permanent Catholic presence and begin evangelizing to aborigines and mainland Chinese migrants arriving from across the Taiwan Strait.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Chinese Communist Revolution that spread across the mainland led to a significant Christian migration to Taiwan. A 1960 Time magazine article reported that, over the course of the 1950s, Taiwan’s Catholic population multiplied by a factor of more than 40 times (from 5,000 to 200,000+), mostly owing to refugees from the mainland. Since the 1960s, however, Taiwan’s Catholic population has not expanded along with the overall population.
Over the course of these decades, Taiwan has lived with the prospect of increased interference from the mainland. The ongoing feeling of concern among Taiwanese Catholics is “probably the same” as that of the rest of the population, according to Father Patrik Páleník, SVD, a native of Slovakia who serves at Miraculous Medal Church in Taipei. He adds that, in general, Taiwanese Catholics are no more strongly opposed to China than non-Catholic Taiwanese.
There is no mainland Chinese supervision of any Catholic worship in Taiwan. Things become more ambiguous, however, when talking about geopolitics. The United Nations does not officially recognize Taiwan. Nor, for that matter, does Taiwan’s biggest ally, the United States. In fact, there are only 15 nations worldwide that formally acknowledge Taiwan. Almost all of these nations are in Central America, the Caribbean, or the Pacific. The only exception, aside from the Vatican, is Swaziland.
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