Jerry Chen, a young Catholic living in Taipei, says finding Catholic friends in Taiwan is hard because Catholics comprise less than 1.5 percent of his country’s population. Finding a Catholic significant other is even more challenging, he adds. He is happy he met Jocelyn Wang.
They share the same beliefs and values, says Jocelyn, who met Jerry through a speed dating session for Catholics.
Speed dating (where singles have eight-minute “dates” with other singles and select those they would like to get to know better) is one of many ways “Project Cana” facilitates opportunities for Taiwanese Catholics to meet a spouse who shares their faith. This ministry grew out of the work of Friendship House—a center for Catholic singles in Taipei that addresses a need for fellowship among the Catholic minority in Taiwan.
Jerry, 31, loves that he can be himself around Jocelyn, 32. Jocelyn, who recently became a Catholic, admires Jerry’s faith and optimism. “He is different,” she says, recalling how impressed she was that he asked her to go to Mass together as their first date. “He really believes in God and for me this is very important.” Jerry hopes they will get married and form a Catholic family.
Maryknoll Father Alan Doyle, who directs Friendship House and oversees Project Cana, says encouraging Catholic marriages and faith-filled families is part of an important pastoral practice. According to a recent survey of 1,300 couples that Project Cana conducted, about 80 percent of Catholics in Taiwan marry non-Christians. As a result, half of them cease Catholic practice and 30 percent “become lukewarm.” Only 33 percent of their children are baptized, resulting in declining Church membership, adds Father Doyle, who went to Taiwan in 1964 and did parish and social work before becoming director of Friendship House in 1975.
Since Project Cana started in 2014, about 40 couples have met through onsite activities, outings and speed dating sessions. Father Doyle estimates that 60 other couples have met through the ministry’s Catholic marriage website, “Love Cana.”
Kristin Hsieh and Robert Tsai are one of those couples who met online. Like 600 other members of Love Cana, they were carefully screened before they joined the website and were able to message other practicing Catholics.
Both Kristin and Robert wanted a partner who desired to know and love God. When they first met in person, Kristin recalls, she asked God, “Is this person in front of me the person you have prepared for me?” Less than a year later, her prayers were answered. They married in 2015. The couple looks forward to transmitting their faith to their son, Thomas, who will turn 2 in February.
The activities at Friendship House in Taipei—and the recently opened Friendship House in Tai-chung City—provide rare opportunities for Catholics ages 20–40 to meet other Catholics their age.
“There is a need for a community of peers,” says Father Doyle. “Young people might only see older people and children at church and slowly drift away.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, about 20 young adults gathered at Friendship House Taipei as Father Doyle and his staff welcomed them all. The young Taiwanese chatted while arranging tables for dinner. Gradually more singles arrived to join them for the 7 p.m. Mass and a seminar after Mass.
“This is a great place to meet the Lord and to make new friends,” says Zhi Hong Wong. As part of Friendship House’s service club, Wong visits an orphanage twice a month with his peers. The center has strengthened his faith because it has a “sense of community and mutual encouragement,” he says.
Currently, Friendship House has 1,100 young Catholics registered, with up to 200 of them coming to monthly activities such as night Masses, courses in leadership and personal development, guitar lessons, catechesis, and service opportunities. The array of options draws young professionals to invite their non-Catholic friends, many of whom decide to become Catholics.
Caring for their peers and others has been a core aspect of Friendship House since it opened its doors nearly 50 years ago. Back then, when Taiwan was moving from an agricultural society to an urban society, Friendship House focused on offering Taiwanese workers migrating to the city a place they could call their own.
“The Church had to follow (young people) to the big city and make sure they stayed connected” to their faith, recalls Father Doyle, 81. Friendship House, he says, served as a transitional parish for single migrants coming to the city, but evolved to meet the new needs of the Church when “the wave of migrants from country to city (in Taiwan) ended about 20 years ago.”
“We morphed into a work for Catholic singles living in the greater Taipei area,” Father Doyle says. “Forty-five years ago most of the youth were junior high school graduates. Now 29 percent have master’s degrees, and 63 percent are college grads.”
Father Doyle adds that during his time as director, “more than 300 couples who met at Friendship House have gotten married and most have become active members of their parishes.” Project Cana has about 200 parish-based “marriage apostolates” whose job is to educate parishioners on the importance of Catholic marriages, encourage parish singles to join Project Cana activities and facilitate the start of Catholic youth groups.
The emphasis of Friendship House and Project Cana is on authentic relationships based on respect. Father Doyle’s staff often checks in with registered members by phone or online to offer support.
“This is like my second family … I am happy and comfortable here,” says Kelly Pan, 37, who participates in Friendship House’s Christian leadership training program. “I come from a Catholic family, but coming here gave me a chance to go deeper into my faith and see the richness of it.”
Featured Image: Jocelyn Wang and Jerry Chen are happy they found each other through Project Cana, a ministry that helps Catholics meet other Catholics, who are in the minority in Taiwan. (Nile Sprague/Taiwan)