Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九總統 departed Taipei for the Vatican on March 17 to attend the inaugural mass of the newly elected Pope Francis 教宗方濟, at the invitation of the Holy See. The Holy See 教廷 is currently the only European country that has formal diplomatic relationship (established in 1932) with the Republic of China 中華民國 (commonly known as Taiwan). This was the first time a ROC President attend the inaugural mass of a newly elected pope. Former ROC President Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. The Taiwanese delegation consisted of President Ma, First Lady Chow Mei-ching 周美青, National Security Council Secretary-General 國家安全會議秘書長 Jason C. Yuan 袁健生, Fu Jen Catholic University President 輔仁大學校長 Vincent Han-Sun Chiang 江漢聲, and Deputy Foreign Minister 外交部常務次長 Vanessa Shih 史亞平. The delegation was seated between the delegations from Chile and Costa Rica, in alphabetical order, representing China.
After the inaugural mass in front of the St. Peter’s Basilica on March 19, a President of Taiwan and a Pope met for the first time. During the brief meeting between Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and President Ma and the First Lady, Ma greeted the Pope in Spanish, introduced himself and the First Lady, then switched to English and mentioned the late Argentine priest Ricardo Ferreira, who had devoted 50 years of his life to serving Taiwan’s people until he died of cancer in June 2006 at the age of 80. Ma also greeted other head of states presented at the mass, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Vice President Joe Biden of the United States.
Among the gifts President Ma presented to Pope Francis was a porcelain vase with two magpies. It was suggested that the vase echoes a 18th century trompe l’oeil mural in the Forbidden City that was likely painted by apprentices of Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit who had served as the Qianlong Emperor’s court painter, back when the Catholic Church had an excellent relationship with China.
The foreign ministry of the People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國 (PRC, commonly known as China) objected to the visit of President Ma and urged the Vatican to severe its tie with Taiwan and recognize the PRC government as the sole legal representative of all of China. The PRC government has had a turmoil relationship with the Holy See ever since its establishment in 1949. The Chinese Communist Party does not recognize the authority of the Pope, sets up its own church to rival that of the Catholic Church, and even appoints its own bishops without the approval of the Pope.
Despite objections, the Taiwanese delegation was treated with great formality after arriving in Rome by the Italian authorities, partly due to the hard work of Taiwan’s Embassy to the Holy See and Monsignor Paul F. Russell, Chargé d’affaires at the Apostolic Nunciature to China 教廷駐華大使館, located in Taipei City.
Taiwan’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Larry Yu-yuan Wang 王豫元, as well as his wife met with Pope Francis on March 22 at Sala Regina, together with more than 180 ambassadors from countries with diplomatic relationship with the Holy See.