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Samstag, 27. Januar 2024

The golden age of Taiwan's indigenous missions


Internuncio Riberi with the queen and king of the Paiwan people. The monarchs received holy baptism from the Internuncio along with a number of the members of their tribe in the mid-1950s.

(Read Part I here and Part II here)

The fall of Beijing to the Communists in 1949 and the subsequent persecution of the Church in China not only caused thousands of Catholic laypeople to leave the mainland for Taiwan, but also brought a large number of native Chinese secular priests as well as missionaries, both Chinese and foreign, from a great number of religious orders to the island, such as the Jesuits, the Society of the Divine Word, Dominicans of the Teutonia Province, the native Chinese congregation of the Disciples of the Lord (Discipuli Domini), the native Sisters of the Oblates of the Holy Family, the Vincentians, the Camillians, and the Swiss Missionary Society of Bethlehem. 

In the early 1950s, the indigenous population of Taiwan numbered between 200,000 and 300,000[1].Belief in the native religious practices had already started to wane under Japanese rule, which clamped down on ritual headhunting, an important religious custom among certain tribes. This led to a greater openess towards Christianity. The large number of new missionaries and a growing interest in Catholicism among the native tribes meant that the Church could finally establish a lasting contact with the more remote tribes in the central mountain ranges and the eastern plains. The new missionary work was often characterized by mass movements of entire villages to enter the Church, such as 800 catechumens in three villages in the southeastern county of Taitung waiting to be baptized by the missionaries of Bethlehem. Sometimes “chance” encounters with the Catholic missions or Catholics proved to be providential, such as natives experiencing Catholic Mass while visiting the city or a fervent Catholic from the mainland sharing his faith with mountain tribes while attending to them as a medic. 

Yet there were also a number of obstacles the missionaries had to grapple with. The large number of requests for missionaries meant that even the large influx of priests and religious from the mainland was not enough to satisfy the demand. A system was adopted by several missions through which a group of indigenous Formosans would be sent to spend a month at a mission station where they would learn the most important truths of the Faith, which they would then hand down to the people in their villages. This offered the benefit of alleviating the lack of missionary personnel, but at the same time posed the traditional danger of mistranslation of theological concepts. Especially in the early 1950s, very few mainland missionaries were familiar with the Formosan languages. Due to the Japanese colonial period, the natives from 20 to 50 spoke Japanese fluently and there were Japanese dictionaries for some Formosan languages. But this did not help if their foreign missionary only spoke Mandarin or another Chinese language. Even if missionaries who were new to Taiwan visited the villages and watched the native catechist deliver his lessons using the large catechism posters common in the Chinese missions, the missionaries could not know whether the terms were correct or the delivery theologically sound. In one case, Fr. Castor Osorno, O.P., a Spanish Dominican who spoke the Paiwan language, suggested using the Japanese word akuma for devil or demon, as the islanders did not seem to have an equivalent in their language. The catechists did not agree with such usage, despite children showing fear when the word was uttered. In other places, among the Tsou people for example, Japanese loanwords like Seilei (Holy Spirit) were readily accepted as their own. This is just one example for the complex theological and missiological questions the missionaries faced, not to mention the need for a deep study of the customs of each tribe. Of this time Fr. Jakob Hilber, SMB, a Swiss missionary in Taitung, wrote: “So we work here, it would seem, against all rules of missiology, solely focused on bringing in the rich harvest which the Lord gives so abundantly—the mission Hwalien, to which Taitung belongs, has over 10,000 catechumens—in time.” The missionaries not only struggled with the languages, the large workload, and missiological questions, but at times had to face Taiwanese bureaucracy as well. Although Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek favored the Catholic missions in general and even wished for more missionaries for the indigenous tribes, access to the mountain tribes was made difficult through the requirement of the so-called “mountain pass”. This document gave outsiders access to the tribal areas but had to be renewed on a regular basis with the authorities. The pass was handed out reluctantly, especially when it came to the area of the Bunun tribe. The Swiss missionaries of the SMB also faced a unique problem: the Swiss government had recognized the Communist rule over the mainland early on, so the SMB missionaries were looked upon with a certain suspicion by the authorities. Lists were required of all attendees of the Christmas Mass at the mission, just as of any other meeting held at the parishes. When given the opportunity, Fr. Hilber would confront policemen who were following him so closely despite Taiwan having religious freedom. When comparisons were drawn to mainland China, where religious freedom only existed on paper, the authorities started to back off.

Fr. Alfred Giger, SMB. blessing the boats of the Tao people. Fr. Giger of the Bethlehem missionaries pioneered the missions on Orchid Island, studying the language and customs of the people and creating a vocational school to improve the indigenous' economic and social situation in a new Taiwanese society. He died in a car crash in Taipei in 1970 after 16 years of missionary work on Orchid Island.
(Picture courtesy of Missionsgesellschaft Bethlehem)

According to Fr. Ernst Böhm, 10,000 native Formosans entered the Catholic Church in the period from 1953 to 1966. Some also converted from Protestantism, especially Presbyterianism, to the Catholic faith. Interestingly, the argument of the antiquity of the Catholic Church seems to have been one of the main factors for Protestant Formosans to convert to Catholicism. The Catholic missionaries also tried to understand the aboriginal culture more deeply. Some members of the Tsou felt drawn to the Church when the Mayavsi feast was celebrated with a Mass instead of the offering to the spirits the pagans had made in times past. The Protestants had abolished the feast altogether, apparently not making an attempt of inculturation. Similar feasts of the Ami, the Saisiyat, and the Atayal were also “baptized”, while the Protestants rejected them in their entirety.

Since the 1970s, the Church in Taiwan has dealt with similar problems as in the West, such as a rise of materialism and a decrease in missionary activity and fervor. This of course also affected the indigenous Catholic population. In additon, it has been said that not all conversions during the “golden era” of the indigenous mission were sincere or inspired by a true understand of the teachings of Catholicism. Yet there have been clear signs of the indigenous mission reaching maturity, with dozens of native priests serving the Church today, especially the Diocese of Hwalien. Some liturgical and biblical texts have been translated into Formosan languages, such as the Four Gosples in Tsou by Fr. Weber, SVD. The consecration of two native bishops, Msgr. John-Baptist Tseng of the Puyuma people in 1998, and more recently of Msgr. Norbert Pu, Bishop of Chiyai, in 2022, shows how the missions among Taiwan’s indigenous tribes has reached its final stage of development, the implantation of the Church (plantatio ecclesiae) through a native hierarchy.

The great movement of Taiwan's indigenous peoples towards the Church in the 1950s and 1960s was likened to a pentecost on a small scale. A number of factors such as a loss of belief in the ancestral religions and the great influx of missionaries from the Chinese mainland worked together providentially to create one of the most interesting times of recent missionary history. May it receive greater attention in future missiological studies.


Ernst Böhm, SVD., “Missionserfolg auf Formosa – Warum?”, Steyler Missionchronik 1967

Rudolf Frisch, SVD , “Gruß aus U-fung”, Steyler Missionschronik 1963

Several articles from “Die katholischen Missionen”, 1953–1954 and 1955–1957

UCA NEWS, Bishop praises past missioners for preserving indigenous languages

Missions Etrangères de Paris, “Dans le diocèse catholique de Hualien, dont 95 % des fidèles sont des aborigènes, le nouvel évêque reste un Chinois Han”

Anton Weber, SVD “Mission Experiences in Taiwan, with a Focus on the Indigenous Tsou People”

Missionsgesellschaft Bethlehem SMB, “Das missionarische Umfeld der ersten Jahre

[1] The statistics given in contemporary Catholic publications often diverge considerably.

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