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 ORDINATION of Joseph Xin Wenzhi as the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai

Christianity first reached China in the seventh century, carried by Nestorians via the Silk Road, but it wasn’t until the mid-16th century, with the arrival of the Society of Jesus, that the Catholic Church established a permanent presence in the Middle Kingdom. After that, the faith made substantial inroads, thanks to Matteo Ricci, a brilliant Italian Jesuit who abandoned traditional evangelization techniques in favor of an “enculturated” approach that accommodated traditional Chinese beliefs and rituals, including the commonplace practice of venerating one’s ancestors.

The Jesuits’ tolerance for these “Chinese rites” generated controversy back in Rome, and in 1704, after a century of debate, Pope Clement XI was persuaded by the Jesuits’ rivals to condemn them as hopelessly tainted by superstition. The Chinese emperors, who’d been tolerant of the missionaries, were outraged—as Jin notes, “To be Chinese, it was most important to venerate ancestors”—and during the 1720s missionaries and then Christianity itself were banned in China.

Catholic missionaries reentered China a century later, thanks to the 1842 treaties that opened the Chinese mainland to both opium and European Christians. French Jesuits built their headquarters on the edge of the small fishing village of Shanghai, and soon after raised Shanghai’s first cathedral, a wooden predecessor to St. Ignatius that was completed in 1910. Catholicism—and Christianity in general—grew steadily in China throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and by the outbreak of World War I, Chinese Catholics numbered 1.2 million.

Jin claims that the first members of his family converted to Catholicism more than 10 generations ago, while they were servants in the house of a Shanghai aristocrat. His childhood was beset by tragedy: At 10 he lost his mother, at 14 his father, and at 18 his only sibling, an older sister. (“And yet I live to a very old age,” he observes. “Very curious, yes?”) His family had enrolled him in Shanghai’s Jesuit-run schools, and he entered the order in 1938, the year he turned 22. “I had lost everyone,” he says. “So I looked to be a soldier for God.”

Jin had always seen similarities between Catholicism and Chinese culture. Like many Chinese Christians, he was attracted to the Gospel of John and its mystical concept of Logos—or “the Word,” as embodied in Christ. “The Logos is like Chinese philosophy,” he says, referring to the Tao, a concept sometimes translated as “the Way.” Both the Tao and Logos, he explains, suggest a rational order in the universe, though in the case of Catholicism, that order is revealed physically in the figure of Christ.

Reconciling Chinese philosophy with Catholic theology was easier than reconciling the political demands of his two masters in this world. The year after Jin entered the Jesuit order, Pope Pius XII ended most of the restrictions on the Chinese rites, and in 1946 he established an independent hierarchy for China’s Church, so that it was no longer a missionary project. But there was still tension between being Catholic and being Chinese. As late as 1949, more than 80 percent of China’s dioceses remained under the control of European bishops who had little interest in relinquishing their sees to the Chinese. Like the pope and the Vatican hierarchy, many of these bishops—under the direction of Archbishop Antonio Riberi, the papal internuncio to China—supported Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists, even after 1949, when the Communists triumphed and Chiang’s government fled to Taiwan. That created an identity crisis for Catholics on the mainland, many of whom shared Jin’s perception that the Communist victory marked “the recovery by China of full independence as well as her national self-respect.” As Jin remarked in a 1987 speech to German Catholics, “To remain Catholic, they could not remain Chinese.”

When the Communists swept into power, Jin was in Rome working on his doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. By the time he graduated, in 1950, Beijing had begun to restrict religious freedoms and expel foreign missionaries. “I knew that I would be arrested if I returned to China,” Jin says matter-of-factly. He returned anyway. “The missionaries were leaving, and China needed pastors.”

In 1951, in an attempt to persuade the Communists not to view the Church as a hostile, foreign-controlled entity, Jin proposed creating a conference of Chinese bishops that would run the Church in a manner that reflected Chinese, not European, interests. He was promptly reported to the papal internuncio, whose response, he says with a laugh, was: “This young priest talks nonsense!” Rebuked, Jin spent the next four years as the rector of Shanghai’s major seminary, training as many Chinese priests as possible to replace the departed missionaries.

But by then, little could be done to help China’s Catholics. The Communists had expelled Riberi in 1951 and officially severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, the bishop of Shanghai, emerged as China’s leading Catholic voice against the Communists. Jin considered Kung a friend but disagreed with his confrontational approach. “Kung believed that the Nationalists would win and come back,” he says. “I said, ‘No. How? It’s a small island—how can they conquer [mainland] China?’”

On September 8, 1955, Kung and Jin were arrested, along with 300 priests, nuns, and laypeople (an additional 800 Catholics were arrested a few weeks later). For the next five years, Jin was kept mostly in solitary confinement in Shanghai, his only human contact with the interrogators and the guards. He was allowed no books or other written materials. When I asked how he survived that period, he smiled and said that he’d memorized the Gospels as a young man. “I kept my faith, by praying and meditating on the Gospels, especially John.”

In 1960, Jin was convicted of counterrevolutionary activities and received an 18-year sentence. Kung was convicted of high treason and received a life sentence. Jin spent the ensuing years in various prisons and reeducation camps, where he worked as a farmer and, off and on, as a translator of foreign documents for the national Public Security Bureau. Ironically, after he finally got access to newspapers during the Cultural Revolution, his hope was shaken in a way it hadn’t been when he was in solitary confinement. “I heard that China was an atheist nation—that the missions, churches, Catholics, Buddhist temples, and Islamic mosques were all gone,” he says. “And I nearly lost my hope.” He pauses. “Almost.” Prayer sustained him, as it does today: Every morning, promptly at 7:30, he says a private Mass with a single attendant in the chapel next to his study. “I still pray the rosary,” he notes. “Now I have beads, and I didn’t in jail.”

Though Jin’s sentence was completed in the mid- ’70s, he remained a political prisoner in northern China until 1982. “I entered [prison] a young man,” he says, “and left an old one.” He emerged to find a Chinese Church that had been utterly transformed. In July 1957, at the behest of the Communist Party, a small group of Chinese Catholic leaders had held the first meeting of the Catholic Patriotic Association, whose stated policy was to ensure that “Chinese Catholics, cleric and lay, take charge of their own affairs and no longer act contrary to the interests of their country.” A year later, two Chinese bishops were ordained without papal approval, and over the next seven years, 49 more would be—until the Cultural Revolution ended the government’s limited toleration for religion.

The Vatican saw the ordinations as an affront, and Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical letter reasserting his right to select bishops—and to excommunicate anyone who circumvented him. However, neither he nor his successors excommunicated any of the bishops consecrated under Communist supervision. Instead, the Vatican quietly recognized that, despite the illicit procedure, the bishops had been ordained by valid prelates, and thus were valid themselves. According to Anthony S. K. Lam, a scholar of the Chinese Church at Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Study Centre, the “illicit but valid” designation is well-known. “If you are ordained by an illicit but valid bishop, you are a valid bishop,” he says. “But only the pope can say you are the bishop of Shanghai.”

When Jin emerged from prison in 1982, Shanghai had two bishops: Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, who was still incarcerated, and Aloysius Zhang Jiashu, a 90-year-old Jesuit who’d been consecrated under Communist supervision in 1960. Many in the city’s elderly Catholic community held Kung in the highest regard, but Zhang was a more controversial figure. The situation epitomized the larger dilemma facing Chinese Catholics: how to reconcile the Church that had spent more than a generation underground with the Church that was tainted by its links to Communism and estranged from the Holy See.

But an important fact was pushing the two churches toward reconciliation, or at least coexistence: Catholicism was growing. In 1980, China officially had 3 million Catholics (likely an underestimate due to poor census data), the same number it had had in 1949. Today, the best estimates place the Catholic population between 12 million and 15 million. No single explanation accounts for this increase, which is mirrored by the growth of other Christian denominations, but many people, including Jin, think that religion has been filling the vacuum created by the collapse of Marxism’s ideological credibility. Whatever the cause, the exploding numbers have reinforced the need to hold the Church in China together, despite the forces that threaten to tear it apart. This is the mission that has defined Jin’s career—one that began when he stepped out of prison and onto the tightrope he’s walked ever since.

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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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