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”
BISHOP JIN in front of the restored stained-
glass windows in the Shanghai cathedral

Twenty-five years later, Father Jin—now bishop of Shanghai—sat across from me in his third-floor office, facing the cathedral’s restored steeples. “It was heartbreaking,” he said of the day he returned to the cathedral, and threw up his hands. “But what could I do?” We were talking in English, one of the five languages he speaks fluently. At 91, he’s a slight man, maybe five and a half feet tall, but his stiff posture gives him a sturdy presence, and when he took my hand to emphasize a point, I felt the metal of his bishop’s ring.

Though largely unknown outside of China, Jin is arguably the most influential and controversial figure in Chinese Catholicism of the last 50 years. He played a leading role in persuading the authorities to allow a prayer for the pope to be said during Masses in China’s registered, or “open,” churches and in developing a Chinese-language liturgy, and he was single-handedly responsible for training more than 400 priests—including several who became Vatican-recognized bishops—in Shanghai’s seminary. He’s also been an unabashed supporter of dialogue and compromise with the Communist government. He accepted ordination as a bishop without Vatican approval and has taken a leading role in China’s open churches, all of which still have to register with the Religious Affairs Bureau and are overseen by bishops appointed by the CPA in consultation with local congregations.

Defying canon law, as Jin has done on several occasions, is no small matter for a Catholic bishop. But Rome has tolerated his disobedience, largely because of what he’s accomplished in Shanghai. From his modern office, Jin looks out over a diocese that includes 141 registered churches, 74 priests (most under the age of 40), 86 nuns, 83 seminarians, and 150,000 laypeople. In Shanghai, at least, there’s been a significant rapprochement between the underground Church and the open one, particularly on the leadership level: Jin is the most prominent Chinese open-Church bishop who recognizes, albeit quietly, the authority of the pope.

Indeed, the line between China’s open and underground churches has been blurring for some time. There are members of the underground Church who still refuse to worship in open churches or to recognize the legitimacy of open-Church bishops. The open Church tends to be much more in line with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which translated the Mass into the vernacular and elevated the role of the laity; the underground Church tends to be nostalgic for the more hierarchical pre–Vatican II Church. But the reality of day-to-day life in the underground Church is more complex than the popular image of Christian believers hidden in Chinese catacombs would suggest. At least 90 percent of open-Church bishops have quietly reconciled with Rome, just as Jin did. In at least one diocese, a priest who served in the open Church was also ordained as an underground bishop. In other dioceses, underground priests have been known to hold Mass in open churches, often using missals and Bibles that Jin had translated and printed.

Nevertheless, the underground Church continues to be targeted by local governments wary of any social movement that refuses to recognize their authority (the national government is more tolerant). The harassment is most pronounced in rural areas, where many Catholics don’t have access to priests or registered churches. But Catholics are sometimes still persecuted in the cities, and today more than two dozen underground priests and bishops are reportedly in government custody.

Jin does not dismiss the suffering of underground Catholics, but he seems to believe it’s unnecessary, now that the sacraments are available in open churches. Explaining why accommodation, rather than resistance, is the right path for Chinese Catholics, he says his flock is in no position to confront the Chinese government, particularly at the behest of the wealthy overseas supporters of the underground Church. “I don’t wait for [the Communist] collapse,” he says. “I get things done now.” Besides, he adds, from the 1950s onward, he realized that Communist secret police “are everywhere, like God. So we can’t do secret activities. It’s stupid.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., a friend and admirer of Jin for nearly two decades, told me, “What I like about Jin is that he’s very Chinese and very Catholic at the same time.” It’s why McCarrick calls him “one of the most important churchmen in China of our time.” Jin isn’t so optimistic about his legacy. “The Vatican thinks that I don’t work enough for the Vatican, and the government thinks that I work too much for the Vatican,” he says. “It is not easy to satisfy both.”

Jin says that from the beginning his primary interest has been poor Catholics in China, “my Catholics.” Neither Beijing nor Rome has always had their best interests at heart, he suggests, and so he’s tried to step into the breach. In the process, he’s become a different sort of Catholic than he was when he was ordained (by a French priest, he points out)—a personal transformation that’s mirrored by the changes at work in China’s growing population of Catholics, both underground and open.

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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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