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”

Within a few months of Jin’s release, the Communist Central Committee published Document 19, the official policy on religion. Following party dogma, it declared religion to be a historical phenomenon that would disappear once socialism’s triumph was complete. In the interim, it called for steps that would strengthen the independence of Chinese religious institutions and insulate them from negative foreign influences, steps that included the reopening of seminaries to train a new generation of patriotic priests.

Under this policy, Jin was asked to take up his old responsibilities as rector of Shanghai’s seminary. Though the CPA would be looking over his shoulder, he saw the necessity: In all of China, there were at most 400 priests to serve 3 million Catholics. He believed that if the Church was to have any chance of survival, China would need young, well-educated priests, even if they were subjected to Communist propaganda during their training. Through a “foreign friend,” Jin requested permission from Rome. The response was that he should “wait for the collapse” of the Communist Party, then reopen the seminary. “They underestimated the Chinese Communist Party,” says Jin. And so, after “much prayer,” he acted in what he believed to be the best interests of China’s Catholics. “I didn’t obey the directive of Rome. I said, ‘Let the Catholic Church survive.’”

Initially at least, there was little to suggest that the seminary was Catholic. Without Vatican support, Jin had to look elsewhere for books and Bibles. “I had to go to Protestants,” he says. That set a precedent, and though he says he tries to obtain support and funding from Roman Catholic organizations whenever possible, since the early 1980s the Shanghai diocese has received significant funding for religious publishing and book purchases from non-Catholic Christian organizations sympathetic to his desire “to proclaim the word of God.”

Such developments didn’t help Jin’s already tenuous standing in Rome. “Once, I was present when John Paul [II] was given testimony on the dramatic suffering of the underground in Shanghai,” recalls Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who has served as an informal Vatican emissary to the Chinese Church since the early 1980s. “And then you hear that a man like Jin comes out and is officially recognized. That puts him in a very bad light.”

Jin’s fellow Jesuits in Taiwan were particularly critical of his approach. “In the early ’80s they accused me of being a traitor,” he says. “They said I was a secret Communist. They accused me of becoming a party member in prison and being a traitor to the Church.” Sighing, he adds, “Rome believed it”—for most of the 1980s, “people abroad considered me a Judas.”

Despite the negative reports that made their way to Rome, John Paul II showed a strong sympathy for China’s Church. As a former bishop of Krakow, he seemed to understand instinctively the compromises made by China’s Catholics, and in several speeches and encyclicals, he indicated his support for open as well as underground believers. According to Heyndrickx and two other people who closely observed Vatican China policy in the 1980s, John Paul II and his inner circle developed a positive perception of Jin in the mid-’80s, mostly as a result of reports emanating out of the newly reopened seminary. Heyndrickx recalls being asked by the pope to assess Jin’s character, and responding, “If he is not faithful, then neither am I.”

Jin’s loyalty was put to the test in January 1985, when he was chosen by Shanghai’s priests and the CPA to be ordained an auxiliary bishop (an assistant and possible successor) to Bishop Zhang. Few inside or outside of Shanghai believed that it was possible for Jin to remain a faithful Catholic—at least, a Roman Catholic—if he accepted the ordination. Yet Jin believed that to reject the appointment would not only place the seminary at risk but also open the Shanghai hierarchy to a priest more inclined toward the CPA and the Communist Party. Reluctantly, he accepted, and he says that on the day of the ordination, he was in need of “consolation.”

It arrived from an unlikely source: With Pope John Paul’s knowledge and tacit approval, Laurence Murphy, a past president of Seton Hall University and an informal intermediary and adviser to the Vatican on the Chinese Church, and Father John Tong, now the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, attended the ceremony. “That was kind of delicate,” Murphy told me, recalling that St. Ignatius was filled with “brass from the CPA.” Jin concedes that there might have been serious consequences had the CPA been aware of a Vatican-approved presence, and he admitted that Murphy and Tong had attended the ordination only after I asked him to confirm Murphy’s account. “It was not encouraged by me,” he said defensively. “I did not apply for that.” After a pause, he added, “They encouraged me, and it was helpful and consolation.”

In 1982, shortly after he was released from prison, Jin petitioned the government to allow him to visit the imprisoned Bishop Kung. He was allowed to make three visits before Kung was released, in 1985 (with Jin signing a personal guarantee of his good behavior). Kung lived in Shanghai under house arrest, accepting visitors and maintaining friendly relations with Jin, who says Kung was “like a brother” at the time. Then in 1988, the same year that Bishop Zhang died and Jin succeeded him as the government-approved head of the Shanghai diocese, Kung received permission to seek medical treatment abroad, and after it was completed, he went into exile, living at his nephew’s home in Connecticut.

According to an American Church official involved in making the Vatican’s China policy, the Vatican strongly preferred that Kung remain in China, because it believed that he was uniquely positioned to heal the rift in China’s Church. Instead, against the wishes of John Paul II but with the tacit support of high-ranking Vatican officials who sympathized with the underground, Kung, working with his nephew, began deepening the rift. The situation grew even more confused when it was revealed that the pope had named Kung a cardinal in pectore—“in secret”—in 1979, during his imprisonment. Kung and his nephew formed the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports and agitates on behalf of the underground Church. For Jin, a favorite target of foundation attacks, Kung’s status and activities were an affront. “Cardinal Kung pushes all of the Catholics against the Chinese Communist Party, then he moves to the United States,” he says. “Very nice for him.” Jin has traveled abroad extensively (the government allows him to go anywhere but Rome), and he likes to point out that he too has plenty of “foreign friends” who could support him in exile if he chose that.

Instead, Jin used his standing as a bishop to begin the reforms that he’d wanted to see in China’s Church since the 1940s. In 1988, he made six trips to Beijing in hopes of persuading the Religious Affairs Bureau to, among other things, allow him to include a prayer for the pope in his diocese’s services; he obtained permission on the sixth visit. The next year, he received permission to have two Hong Kong priests and an American priest teach at the seminary. Soon after their arrival, the priests began preparing the seminarians to say Mass in the vernacular, and on September 30, 1989, the first Chinese-language Mass was celebrated in Shanghai. Father Joseph Zen, a Shanghai native and now the cardinal archbishop of Hong Kong, was the celebrant. The risk was significant: China’s religious authorities reserved the right to approve changes to the liturgy, and they’d long preferred Latin, largely because it couldn’t be understood by most Chinese.

Over the next several months, Jin says, he quietly ordered his priests and seminarians to take the new liturgy to Shanghai’s other churches. “Jin was the one who had the guts to implement the Mass,” says Father Thomas Law, a Hong Kong liturgist who was involved in the Mass at the chapel. “Nobody else.” The Chinese-language Mass wasn’t officially authorized on a national level until 1993. Soon afterward, the Shanghai diocese published its own translation, which was quickly disseminated throughout the country.

It was characteristic Jin. He has keen political instincts, and throughout his career he’s been able to use his standing as an open-Church bishop to achieve things that he never could have done in the underground Church. Though Jin won’t discuss his relationships with Chinese officials, those close to him claim that he has good relations at a very high level in Beijing and Shanghai. It’s a delicate balancing act, says Jeroom Heyndrickx: “He had to say things that sound correct to the regime that also protect his church.”

During one of our interviews, Jin contrasted himself with the outspoken Joseph Zen, who has become a well-known agitator against the CPA since taking over as archbishop of Hong Kong. “You cannot speak out as a bishop in a Communist country,” Jin says. “I can’t freely speak like Zen, because I must protect my diocese.” Withholding criticism of China’s religious authorities and their policies is perhaps the greatest compromise that the open-Church bishops choose to make.

At the same time, there are lines that Jin won’t cross. In the early 1990s, for instance, he was offered the chairmanship of the government-organized Chinese bishops’ conference, but declined the overture because he thought it would compromise his independence. The role was later assumed by Beijing’s Bishop Fu Tieshen, who, after his death in April 2007, was widely criticized for being little more than a mouthpiece for the Communist Party.

In conversation, Jin exhibits few doubts about his decisions, but occasionally his answers turn defensive. During one of our interviews, I asked about his impressions of the underground Church. He began to answer, then suddenly interrupted himself. “[The members of the underground Church] say they are loyal to the pope,” he said. “But I am as loyal as them. Why become bishop? I led the [Chinese] Catholics to pray for the pope and even printed the prayer! I reformed the liturgy. Before me, it was all in Latin. But the underground Church did nothing. If I stayed with them, I would do nothing, too.”

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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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