For more than 100 years, generations of Maryknoll missioners have gone to the field afar, learned new languages, and connected with people from different cultures while sharing God’s message of mercy. Father Kurt J. Anderson, a 73-year-old priest who has dedicated his entire ministry to the people of Taiwan, is one of them.
As pastor of two churches and a rural outstation, Father Anderson enjoys opportunities to meet with parishioners at five weekend Masses, where he preaches in Taiwanese, Mandarin Chinese and English. “I feel very much a part of the community here,” he says.
For the past four years, Father Anderson has also been in charge of the Maryknoll Language Service Center in Taichung. The center, the priest says, produces liturgical materials in Chinese and Taiwanese to help missioners minister to the people in their native language.
“The service that we offer encourages people to use the local language, because it is so difficult with the characters,” he says. “It helps in pronouncing characters that are not so common—and usually Church texts have rather difficult words.”
Studying the Taiwanese language was one of the first things Father Anderson did after ordination in 1972. After two years of language school in Taiwan, the missioner from Detroit worked in seven rural parishes and smaller outstations. Later, he studied Mandarin for a year and headed south, where he did pastoral work using his knowledge of language and culture for about 30 years. When he was pastor of the Wujya parish in Kaohsiung, for example, the missioner developed training for lay people to visit the sick and encouraged parishioners to do mission in their own community. Father Anderson came to the Taichung area in 2010 to continue his pastoral ministry. He says he is just following the legacy of Maryknollers who came before him.
“Maryknoll has been very important to the mission in Taiwan especially here in the central area (of the island),” says Father Anderson, adding that Maryknoll’s presence helped to strengthen the local church. “In parts of the diocese, some areas were developed by Maryknoll from scratch. They were starting parishes, going into the mountain areas.”
Maryknoll’s mission in Taichung formally began in 1951, with missioners focusing on relief work, nutrition, medical visits and spiritual care. Learning the language of the mission field was difficult but worthwhile because it connected the missioners with the people—and it was crucial to making the Gospel available to them.
Stressing the importance of ministering in the local language, the late Maryknoll Father Albert Fedders established a language and cultural school in 1952. Maryknoll missioners also learned indigenous languages and evangelized minority groups in Taiwan.
Father Fedders expanded the program and wrote textbooks used by Maryknollers and other foreigners. By the early 1970s, the language school offered training to Maryknoll and non-Maryknoll missionaries in the major languages of Taiwan, including Mandarin and Taiwanese dialects, religion and Taiwanese culture.
“Learning the language of the people you are ministering to means that you are ministering to their heart, not to their head,” says Maryknoll Father Alan Doyle, director of the Maryknoll Language Schools in Taipei and Taichung, which continue to be valuable resources for missioners.
At the Language Service Center in Taichung, Father Anderson continues the efforts of many priests, including Maryknoll Father Clarence A. Engler, who oversaw the completion of two dictionaries, one in English and Taiwanese and the other in English and the local Amoy dialect.
In addition to printing liturgical books, the language resource center developed and maintains a collection of Chinese pastoral resource materials, available as electronic and audio books. Father Anderson is also working on a Taiwanese translation of the Catholic Bible.
He recognizes that being a Christian minority in Taiwan can be challenging for his parishioners, so he tries to be there to answer any questions they may have. One of Father Anderson’s favorite moments is when he asks why a person became Christian and is often inspired by the response. “Every story is different, but there was something that touched them and brought them into their faith,” he says.
He shares the story of a woman who was familiar with the Catholic Church because she was involved in a Catholic hospital. Yet, she was searching and went to see what Buddhism had to offer.
“Some very nice Buddhist person gave her some tapes. She put a cassette into the tape recorder and it did not work. So, she took them back to the person,” the missioner says. “After some discussion, the person said, ‘Maybe you are not meant to be a Buddhist. Maybe you should follow the other path to the Catholic Church because these tapes work; they just don’t work for you.’ I hear amazing stories like that.”
During his 46 years of ministry in Taiwan, the priest has also learned that he needs the support and help of local people, who, he says, have constantly enriched his own spirit and helped him navigate the language and culture. Scripture reflection and daily Mass also strengthen his spirituality.
Father Anderson’s gift for languages continues to serve him at his parishes. “To be able to keep working in mission sustains me,” he says. “You realize that a lot of what we can do is to just be available to people, and to do what we can.”
Featured Image: Maryknoll Father Kurt Anderson and Isabella Gao talk about their work at the Maryknoll Language Service Center in Taichung, Taiwan. (N. Sprague/Taiwan)