President Ma Ying-jeou met on the morning of April 7 with Monsignor Paul Fitzpatrick Russell, Chargé d'Affaires a.i. of the Apostolic Nunciature to the ROC. The president briefed Monsignor Russell on interaction and exchanges between the ROC and the Vatican, and also spoke about successes achieved by the ROC in its effort to act as a provider of humanitarian aid in the international community.
President Ma first congratulated Archbishop Russell on his appointment as Archbishop Nuncio to Turkey, and said the honor shows the high regard in which he is held by the Vatican's Secretariat of State. During his eight years in Taiwan, Archbishop Russell has actively promoted cooperation and exchanges between the ROC and the Vatican, and is widely esteemed for his tremendous contributions to bilateral friendship. Later that same day, said the president, ROC Minister of Foreign Affairs David Y. L. Lin (林永樂) will be conferring the Order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon upon Archbishop Russell in recognition of his many years of hard work and contributions.
President Ma noted that official diplomatic ties between the ROC and the Vatican are entering their 74th year, a bilateral relationship that is constantly renewed with frequent exchanges and interaction. Thanks to the efforts of Archbishop Russell, several historic and unprecedented breakthroughs have been seen in relations between the ROC and the Vatican. In the area of bilateral cultural exchanges, the two sides signed an Agreement on Collaboration in the Field of Higher Education and on the Recognition of Studies, Qualifications, Diplomas and Degrees at the Vatican in 2011, the first bilateral treaty since they established diplomatic ties in 1942. This opened the door to academic cooperation between the two sides, and played a significant role in consolidating bilateral ties. In 2014, the Sistine Chapel Choir obtained special approval from the Vatican and the Vatican's Secretariat of State to perform for the first time at the National Concert Hall in Taipei, and the choir received rave reviews. This past February, the Vatican also specially selected the ROC to cooperate on the exhibition Treasures from Heaven—A Special Exhibition of Artifacts from the Holy See—at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. This marked the first time, he said, that the Vatican had held a major overseas exhibition. The Vatican dispatched Archbishop Piero Marini, President of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, to lead a delegation to Taiwan to attend the opening ceremony of the exhibition and witness the event together with the people of Taiwan.
Turning to the subject of high-level visits, President Ma stated that the Vatican has dispatched many important cabinet-level officials, cardinals, and archbishops to visit Taiwan since he took office in 2008, and Archbishop Russell once said that the number of senior clergy who've visited Taiwan since he was posted here in 2008 has exceeded the number of visitors that he had received in his previous 16 years as a diplomat, and even exceeded the number of senior clergy visiting other countries. Meanwhile, the ROC's vice president, minister of foreign affairs, minister of the interior, and minister of health have all attended important events at the Vatican in recent years and received an enthusiastic reception there. These are all clear indications of the excellent state of the bilateral friendship, he said. In 2013, President Ma led a delegation to the Vatican to attend the inauguration of Pope Francis, and personally congratulated the pope. "This was a first since diplomatic relations were established between the ROC and the Vatican," and marked a new milestone in the history of the bilateral relationship.
The president also mentioned that Archbishop Russell has actively helped various Vatican councils to hold international events in Taiwan over the years. Examples include: Spiritual Exercise for the Leaders of the Church's Charitable Organization in Asia (2009); the Asian annual meeting of the Apostleship of the Sea, which is under the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (2010); the Caritas Asia Regional Assembly and Forum (2012); and the 2nd Asia Pacific Congress on Migration, Family, and Mission, held in 2014 by the Chinese Regional Bishops' Conference. The archbishop has spared no effort in promoting the Catholic faith and caring for those in need, and the results have been outstanding, said the president.
After a strong earthquake hit the city of Tainan in southern Taiwan in the early morning hours of this past February 6, causing great loss of life and property, the pope immediately conveyed his condolences via the Apostolic Nunciature to the ROC, and the Pontifical Council COR UNUM donated US$50,000 to the relief effort, for which Taiwan is very grateful. In addition, the pope attaches great importance to the diplomatic relationship between the ROC and the Vatican. Each year on the ROC's National Day, the pope sends a congratulatory message and prays for the well-being of the people of Taiwan, which is quite touching. During his time in the ROC, Archbishop Russell has done an excellent job of conveying the pope's friendship toward our country, his expectations of the Catholic Church in Taiwan, and his love for our people. The archbishop has been an ideal spokesperson in the ROC for the pope and the Vatican, said the president.
Commenting on Taiwan's contributions in the area of international humanitarian aid, the president stated that the ROC is an active "provider of humanitarian aid," and has responded strongly to the pope's calls to care for the poor and the disadvantaged. Our government, for example, has acted via the Vatican to provide relief to refugees in northern Iraq, victims of Ebola, an earthquake in Nepal, and a landslide in Guatemala. The ROC also provides ongoing assistance to refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, including the donation of 350 pre-fabricated housing units, ambulances, and 7,500 solar-powered LED lamps to refugee camps in Iraq and Jordan. In 2014, the ROC responded to the Ebola outbreak in Africa by donating 100,000 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE), while at the same time contributing US$1 million to the US CDC Foundation's Global Disaster Response Fund to help Asia-Pacific nations build up their disease control capabilities. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the ROC immediately dispatched a disaster rescue and relief team, and delivered material aid and medicine by air. Private donations from Taiwan also came to roughly US$16 million. "Wherever a disaster occurs," said the president, "we stand ready to express our concern and take part in the relief effort."
President Ma remarked that the Catholic Church has been active for more than 150 years in Taiwan, where it operates 715 churches. The assistance provided by many of religious orders, said the president, has enabled the Catholic Church to establish 16 hospitals, 308 educational institutions, and 123 community service and charity organizations, thus bringing peace, happiness, and progress to millions.
The president pointed out that the ROC government, out of gratitude to foreign missionaries for their many years of service in Taiwan, in June of 2011 launched the Mackay Program, under which foreign clergy members aged 65 or older are eligible to receive the same welfare benefits enjoyed by ROC senior citizens. And last year, President Ma conferred the Order of Brilliant Star with Violet Grand Cordon on 12 foreign clergy members in Taiwan in recognition of their long years of selfless service.