Meeting of the Association BEAO
Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
The most recent meeting of the Benedictine Association of East Asia and Oceania took place 26th-29th November 2018 in Taiwan. I attended it with Dom Mark Butlin, monk of Ampleforth (England) and member of the International Team of the AIM. After the meeting we took a great tour of continental China: Beijing, Jilin, Changdou, Shanghai, ending up at Hong Kong and finally Macao for Dom Mark.
The meeting took place at the house of the Benedictine Sisters of Danshui near Taipei. This community had been founded by the monastery of St Benedict at St Joseph, Minnesota. The sisters followed the example of the monks of St Vincent at Latrobe, who in 1925 founded the University of Fu Jen at Peking. In the same way the sisters established at Peking a college for girls in the framework of the University of Fu Jun. They continued to be active there until the brothers lost their control of the university, though the sisters remained on the spot until 1935 when they transferred to Kaifeng. They were confronted with the Sino-Japanese conflict and had to care for the wounded Chinese and help the refugees. Once the United States had entered the Second World War the sisters were sent to a concentration camp from March 1943 till the end of the war in 1945. Then they returned to Kaifeng to take up their activities again till 1948 when the Communists took over the city. The sisters had to flee first to Shanghai, then in 1949 to Taiwan. They taught in a school in Taiwan but were soon invited to teach English at the national University of Taiwan at Taipei. The community recruited in the local population and were able to buy the property where they now are. They built a monastery and an orphanage. They soon transformed the orphanage, which has since then been very active. The community is composed of a dozen sisters, and at present there is a group of Vietnamese postulants and novices.
On Tuesday 27th November the presentation began of the communities present at the meeting. There were some thirty participants, superiors of monastic communities of the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Japan and Vietnam. Today we listened to the presentation of the monasteries of the Philippines and Korea; the evening before, Australia had begun this type of presentation. It was an impressive recital of diverse situations. Each community presented a powerpoint or video of their history and present situation. There are still communities flourishing in these two countries despite the increasing worry marked by the continuing decline in vocations.
The Eucharist was presided by the Chargé d’affaires of the Nunciature at Taiwan, Monsignor Sladam Cosic. He was born in Croatia but is now a Bosnian. The presentation of communities of Japan, Vietnam and the island of Taiwan continued in the afternoon. After the evening meal there were workshops on different subjects: the life and questions of contemplative communities, monastic life and the new media, mid-life crises, the Church in China. Wednesday 28th November began with a presentation by the Abbot Primate on aspects of contemporary Benedictine life. After that came the presentation of the AIM, made by myself in partnership with Dom Mark Butlin.
In the afternoon we had a presentation on the history of the Catholic Church in Taiwan by Professor Francis So. Christian presence on the island began in the South with the arrival of the Dutch in 1624. The count of evangelical Christians was 70,000 in 1643. A first Catholic mission by the Dominicans arrived in the North in 1626. By 1639 there were 4,500 Catholics in Taiwan. It was progressively made over to the Dutch. In 1662 the Chinese rebel Koxinga conquered the island and forbade Christianity till he was overthrown by the Manchu dynasty in1683. Christianity remained forbidden. The evangelisation of the island began again in 1859 with the European Dominican missionaries from China. The Convention of Peking, imposed by the Westerners in 1860, saw the opening of the ports of Formosa to foreigners, leading to the arrival of missionaries of various Christian confessions. The Presbyterian Church was the most developed. With the cession of Taiwan again to Japan in 1895 the Presbyterian Church was the only current authorised and encouraged by the new power, aware of the advantages which the missionaries could bring. The establishment of the first diocese dated from1913 as a Prefecture Apostolic. It depended on the Archbishop of Tokyo in a highly political way to control the influence of China. In 1945, when Taiwan counted about 10,000 faithful and 15 priests, the Japanese presence yielded to the Chinese nationalists. The arrival of the Chinese nationalist party in force and the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek to the island in 1949 brought the installation of a totalitarian regime for some decades. This regime has now given way to a functioning democracy.
Also in 2007 for a population of about 23 million inhabitants the Catholic Church in Taiwan numbers officially 300,000 faithful on the registers, 15 bishops for 7 dioceses, 670 priests and 1,100 religious. By comparison Hong King with a population of 7 million (one-third) numbers one diocese composed of some 250,000 Catholics, two bishops, 300 priests and 600 religious. At the present time the Christian population of Taiwan is 3.5%.
It would be good for those who dream of a massive conversion of China – once it is freed from the evil of Communism – to take a closer look at the society of Taiwan, which is very Chinese, rich, free and democratic, evangelised for centuries… but still fairly impermeable to Christianity.
The second talk was from Mr Chen Chien-Jen, vice-President of the Republic of China, as the regime in Taiwan is called. His conference was entitled ‘My experience as a Catholic in the service of the government and the relationships of Taiwan with the Philippines and Korea’. He is a researcher in medical science who has contributed to protection against viral diseases, and was soon snapped up to play a political role. His membership of the Catholic religion has been respected, and his intervention was an encouraging witness. He spoke also of relationships with the brother-countries namely the Philippines and Korea, which had special interest for the members of the company who were from those places.
After dinner there were again workshops on Benedictines and the world of education, Benedictine oblates as lay associates, and a possible co-operation between monastic communities of East Asia and Oceania (in fact, especially Australia).
Each meeting of the BEAO includes a journey of discovery of some local features. On Thursday 29th November we visited the Catholic University of Fu Jen at Taipei, and especially the Faculty of Theology and the new hospital. The university is run by the Jesuits. In origin it was founded at Peking as the Academy Fu Jen by a group of Benedictine monks, and became a university two years later. The Servants of the Divine Word took over the administration of the university in 1933 and it was integrated into the University of Peking in 1952. In 1952 it was transferred to Taiwan by a decision of the Conference of Bishops and the Congregation of the Servants of the Divine Word and the Society of Jesus. Today it is a flourishing university, well known at all levels.
During the afternoon we visited the Palace Museum where we discovered the marvellous splendours of Chinese art in porcelain, jade and bronze. The day ended with a festal evening at which each group sang a song which gave an echo of their characteristics. That was the end of the meeting, a useful moment of contacts, discoveries and collaboration, very well prepared by Brother Nicholas Koss, current president, prior of the community of Wimmer at Taipei and professor of comparative literature at Peking.
On the morning of 30th November Dom Mark and I left with Nicholas Koss to visit the priory of Wimmer. The monastery was founded by the Abbey of St Vincent of Latrobe (USA) in 1964. There have never been more than six or seven monks, many of whom teach at the university. When the university was transferred to Taipei the community followed, even though the monks of St-Vincent were no longer responsible for the university. This community remains a precious witness at the heart of the Asian reality. It is inscribed in a web of international relationships at the heart of the local reality, including continental China.
Our journey took us to continental China: Peking, Manchuria, Sichuan and Shanghai. An echo of this journey will be given in the next issue. We ended our journey at Hong Kong with the community of Lantao and the Trappist Sisters of Macao, whom Dom Mark visited, while I returned to France, deeply marked by the multiple contacts, which allowed me to understand much better the Chinese context and its relationships to the Catholic Church and to monasticism.