Nearly a half-millennium ago, on Aug. 9, 1549, Jesuit father Francis Xavier glimpsed the caramel beaches and emerald woodland slopes of ancient Formosa from the railings of the Malaccan junk he had hired to sail him northward to Japan. Father Francis did not further remark on the island, hearing from his pilot, a Chinese mariner called “Avān the Pirate,” that this “Lequeo pequeño” — “little Ryukyu” (小琉球) was wilderness. Rounding forested headlands at the Tamsui estuary, “Avān” set course northeast and navigated five days to landfall at Kagoshima, Japan, on Aug. 15. By 1600, Francis Xavier’s Jesuits were court astronomers for the Ming (明) emperor. By 1700, they had formulated “Chinese Rites” for thousands of Catholic converts completely baffled by Church Latin. The “Chinese Rites” controversy was a defining ordeal for the Jesuits who were condemned as heretics in the Church.

It is a metaphor for Pope Francis’ worldview that today, five hundred years after Francis Xavier’s odyssey through the Strait, Formosa is an idyllic vision en route to China in his apostolic diplomacy. Vatican diplomacy with Taipei rests on the Holy Father’s pastoral hopes for Catholicism’s future in communist China. He has few worries about the Church in Taiwan. It is free and flourishing. Paradoxically, his “nuncio” in Taipei is accredited only to the temporal authorities of “China.”

The Church in Taiwan has, for 40 years, been a discreet source of liturgical and seminary support for underground Catholics in China. I recall this from my consular service when I visited Fuzhou’s Saint Dominic’s cathedral in 1991 and, unannounced, called on Bishop Joseph Zheng (鄭長誠). The Church was alive with seminarians who, I noted, studied theology texts printed in Taipei. At the time, Comrade Xi Jinping (習近平) was secretary of the municipal Communist Party Committee; and, at the time, Bishop Zheng considered young Mr Xi (younger even than I) to be tolerant of the Catholic diocese of Fuzhou. The “Patriotic Catholic Association” had an office in the cathedral basement, but Bishop Zheng told me they were never there. His “above-ground” (地面的) church seemed free of Party or government harassment.

Chinese Catholicism has endured for 400 years especially in East China. The Church has been a spiritual strength in times of dynastic upheaval and social chaos. But rarely a refuge. The tenacity of Catholics in Shanghai after the communist takeover was punished with persecutions and martyrdom. I am indebted to the late Father Michael Chu (朱勵德), S.J., once the Jesuit provincial for Taiwan, who in 1979 sought my help in securing an American visa for his brother, Jesuit Father Francis Xavier Chu (朱樹德), who had just completed his 20-year prison sentence and was staying in the family tenement in Shanghai unsure of his future. I was then the American consul in Beijing. I did all I could, sending a formal visa guarantee letter to the Chinese passport authorities. But Father Francis Xavier soon was re-arrested and died in prison four years later.

Father Francis Xavier had another brother, Matteo Chu (朱立德), also a Jesuit, and also in prison. Matteo was released before the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989 and deported to Taiwan shortly thereafter. Indeed, the Chu Family of Shanghai had eight sons, four of whom became Jesuits; with Father Zhu Yude (朱育德) the last to become a Jesuit. In March 2014, Father Yude, as “head of the underground community in Shanghai,” presided over the funeral Mass of Shanghai Bishop Fan Zhongliang (范忠良) according to the Hong Kong-based “Union of Catholic Asian News.”

I mention this because on Sept. 15, 2016, Father Matteo (then 82) was in Rome. In memory of his sainted mother, Chu T’ing-t’ing (朱婷婷) whose sons all were imprisoned for their faith by the communists, Matteo attended a Mass at the chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae in honor of suffering mothers of prisoners. Pope Francis said Mass, and preached, “It happened so many times, when I went to the diocese of Buenos Aires to visit the prisoners, to see the queue, the row of women waiting to go in: they were mothers but they were not ashamed, their flesh was imprisoned there.” The Holy Father is no stranger to dictators and their prisons.

After that Mass, Pope Francis received the communicants, and when Father Matteo Zhu’s turn came, he introduced himself to the Holy Father: “I am a Jesuit, my mother was mother to four Jesuits, all were in prison, the oldest died in prison in 1983.” Francis’ eyes widened in recognition, “Your brother is Francis Xavier.”

Pope Francis kissed Father Matteo’s hands. “Your Brother Francis Xavier was a very brave priest, we all know of his witness for the Lord.” It happened that Father Francis Xavier Chu’s ashes were given to his family in Shanghai who in 1984 conveyed them to Rome via a physician family friend. The friend got as far as Buenos Aires and entrusted the urn to the archbishop — Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis — who was moved by the sacrifice of his brother Jesuit in China. As a Jesuit, Pope Francis draws great inspiration from Saint Francis Xavier and all Jesuits who bear his name. Father Francis Xavier Chu’s memorial stone is now at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Changhua, Taiwan. I do not believe the pope has forgotten Taiwan.

Here, I confess that, in June 1960, I was confirmed in the Catholic faith at Saint Christopher’s Church in Taipei, in the name of “Francis Xavier,” by Bishop Frederick A. Donaghy of the Maryknoll missionaries, who himself as imprisoned in 1949 and deported from China to Taiwan in 1955. So I’ve always had a soft spot for Jesuits by that name. I’m inclined to trust in the Holy Father in his pastoral mission for Catholics in China and his deep affection for the people of Taiwan.

John J. Tkacik, Jr is a retired American foreign service officer who served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. He appears here through the courtesy of Taipei Times.

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