ROME – Summertime in Rome is infamous for its heat and sizable crowds of tourists overrunning the Eternal City, but it’s also a time when many embassies to the Holy See tend to hold invite-only events, since things largely slow down during July and August.

Two of those embassy events happened on the same day this week – the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s annual 4th of July reception, the highlight of the summer for many American expats, and the inauguration of a contemporary art exhibit hosted by the Taiwanese Embassy to the Holy See, both of which took place July 3.

Titled “Light of the World,” the exhibit was launched Wednesday at the embassy, just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica on the Via della Conciliazione. Consisting of 23 pieces of art done by 21 Taiwanese artists, the exhibit was done with the encouragement of the Pontifical Council for Culture and will stay up until April 2020. Visitors who wish to see the exhibit need only make a reservation with the embassy.

Attending the Wednesday launch were a number of Vatican reporters, ambassadors from other embassies, as well as several Vatican officials, including Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, president of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s culture department, who recently returned from Beijing’s flower expo.

In his remarks, Ambassador Matthew S.M. Lee said Pope Francis’s continual emphasis on the “culture of encounter” was an inspiration for the exhibit, which he said seeks to “show the encounter between faith and culture under a different light: Of art, of color, of creativity, of people-to-people contacts, of love, of passion and of the essence of life.”

Taiwan’s embassy to the Holy See has in the past kept a very low profile, flying on almost no one’s radar. However, the exhibit, which next year will be followed by a second art exhibition on focused on the Virgin Mary, indicates that the embassy might finally be ready for some visibility.

The Republic of China established diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1942 when a diplomatic minister was assigned, arriving in Rome in 1943.

After the Chinese civil war, President Chiang Kai-shek fled with his government to the island of Taiwan in 1949, while the Communists under Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.

Under the “One China” policy, governments had diplomatic relations with either Beijing or Taipei – but no country has officially recognized Taiwan as an independent country.

Most Western countries had switched their embassies to Beijing by the 1970s: The Republic of China’s seat at the U.N. was taken over by the People’s Republic of China in 1971, and the United States moved its embassy to Beijing in 1979.

Currently, fewer than 20 countries maintain ties with Taipei, mostly in the Americas and Oceania. The Vatican is the only state in Europe to do so.

It is no secret that the Vatican would happily switch its ties, but full diplomatic relations is one of the few bargaining chips it has in its negotiations with the Communist authorities on the mainland, so it is expected that such a move is years away.

However, the Taiwanese Embassy to the Holy See was forced to face this question in a very real way following a Vatican deal with mainland China on the appointment of bishops in September 2018 – a move which could be at the root of their desire for more visibility in Rome.

Since the 1949 Communist takeover of China, Catholicism in the country has been split between an “official” church that cooperates with the government and an “underground” church which resists its control, and the appointment of bishops has been a particularly contentious issue.

No details of the agreement were released, however, what is known is that Pope Francis officially recognized eight bishops named without papal mandate by the Chinese government’s Patriotic Association; before this, technically they had been excommunicated.

The deal didn’t touch on diplomatic relations, but it did raise concerns about what the implications would be for Taiwan.

The Taipei government was not consulted about the agreement, but shortly after the deal was struck, Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-Jen met with Francis in Rome briefly ahead of the Oct. 14, 2018 canonization of St. Paul VI. Chen invited Francis to visit Taiwan, and conveyed the greetings of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen.

The Vatican Secretary of State on several occasions has insisted that relations with Taiwan are important, and that the Holy See is not interested in completely cutting ties with the island.

Days before his visit with Chen, on Oct. 11, 2018 the pope met Bishop Thomas An-Zu Chung of Chiayi, a representative of Taiwan to the Synod of Bishops on youth that took place in Rome that same month, indicating that while right now mainland China might be the Vatican’s priority, Taiwan hasn’t been forgotten.

In Rome, the Taiwanese Embassy to the Holy See has kept fairly quiet about the deal; but the few times it has referred to the accord, the mission, at least publicly, seems to take a positive view.

In a fall 2018 edition of the embassy’s newsletter, it was said that the Vatican’s agreement with mainland China “aims to facilitate the communion between the Chinese Catholic Church and the Universal Church. This would, in turn, help to promote religious freedom throughout China.”

This agreement, the newsletter said, “marks the first step taken by the Holy See to address ecclesiastical issues that are long unresolved, providing Catholics in Mainland China with the chance to live a normal life of faith, and promoting religious freedom.”

Yet in addition to the positive words about the deal, the newsletter also flagged religious freedom concerns, highlighting several instances of Chinese authorities either demolishing crosses and churches or arresting bishops who are not officially recognized by the government.

It also included comments from a speech made by Tsai in which she criticized Mainland China for having “seriously challenged” peace and stability in and around the Taiwan Strait.

In other words, the Vatican’s deal with Beijing is a small step in the long journey to full ties, and the Taiwan embassy should be hosting events in a type of “diplomacy of art” for the foreseeable future.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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