Keeping Faith

Jin Luxian’s 50-year struggle to keep Catholicism alive in China, balance Rome and Beijing, and build a Church for “100 million Catholics”
THE PAST AND THE FUTURE: Bishop Jin Luxian and his chosen successor, Joseph Xing Wenzhi

Also See:

In a letter dated May 27, 2007, and released at the end of June, Pope Benedict called for reconciliation among China's divided Catholics.

Click here to read Pope Benedict's letter.

Click here to read the Vatican's explanatory note.

Click here to read an analysis of the letter by Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who has served as a Vatican emissary to the Chinese Church since the early 1980s.

Interviews: "A Church for China"
Adam Minter discusses his article about Bishop Jin Luxian, the future of Catholicism in China, and life as a writer in Shanghai.

Flashbacks: "The Cross and the Star"
Articles from The Atlantic's archives illuminate the history of China's complex relationship with Christianity.

On a June day in 1982, Father Aloysius Jin Luxian, a 66-year-old Jesuit just released from prison, walked into Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral for the first time in 27 years. In his youth, the building had been one of the great churches in East Asia, celebrated for its delicate Gothic arches and colorful stained glass. Now the color was gone, replaced by clear glass and harsh sunlight that bleached the cracked columns and tiled floor. The steeples, once among the tallest in Shanghai, were missing, as was the altar beneath which he’d been ordained, in 1945. Jin had spent nearly three decades under house arrest, in reeducation camps, and in prison, so he had few illusions about the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward religion. But the damage to the church was still hard to bear. St. Ignatius, he learned, had been converted to a grain warehouse during the Cultural Revolution, and the authorities had spent three days burning most of the diocese’s Catholic books in front of the church.

Now services were being held again. But open prayers for the pope were strictly prohibited, and scant mention of the holy father could be found in any of the crudely printed books used in the cathedral. Mass was still in Latin, unintelligible to most Chinese. The current bishop had been ordained without approval from Rome, by a Communist government determined to erase the memory of Shanghai’s still-incarcerated bishop, Ignatius Kung (Gong) Pin-mei. Everything was under the direct control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the 25-year-old government agency that oversaw Chinese Catholic life.

Yet on Saturday nights, the church was packed, its pews filled with 2,500 or more parishioners. Morning Mass wasn’t quite as crowded, but it happened, and regularly. Elsewhere in Shanghai, four more Catholic churches were holding services, and they, too, were packed on Saturday nights. All these parishioners were attended to by 60 elderly priests, who’d submitted to living together in a single house, under strict CPA supervision, because they were determined to live openly as Catholic priests.

Priests had other options, including a nascent “underground” movement, whose members refused to worship in churches registered with the Religious Affairs Bureau, which oversaw the CPA. During the later years of his incarceration, Jin had become familiar with several priests who belonged to this movement, and he’d been impressed by their courage and piety. But the catastrophe that befell China’s Catholics in the 1950s had convinced him that the underground movement, with its determination to confront the Communist Party, would never be able to provide a stable spiritual home for the thousands of Catholics who openly attended Mass in Shanghai every week.

Jin had once hoped that a distinctively Chinese Church would replace the missionary Church of his youth, reconciling his devout Roman Catholicism with his Chinese identity. The old attempts at reconciliation had failed because they’d emphasized one identity over the other, leaving a church that seemed neither authentically Catholic nor Chinese. But now, with Rome separated from its Chinese followers, there was an opportunity to create a truly Chinese Church—for Jin, and for the Catholics he aspired to lead.

Photos by Ritsu Shinozaki
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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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