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”

Cardinal McCarrick told me that he and Jin had a routine during the 1990s: “I would tell him, ‘I am going to visit the holy father soon. Is there anything that you would like me to tell him?’ And he would answer, ‘Tell the holy father that he has my prayers and blessings.’ And I would ask, ‘Anything else?’ And he would answer, ‘And the blessings of my priests, sisters, and congregations.’ And anything else? And he would pause and say, ‘Not at this time.’”

During the 1990s, according to several of his friends, Jin was frustrated that despite his accomplishments, he could not be recognized as the rightful bishop of Shanghai. (By 2000, roughly two-thirds of the open-Church bishops were reconciled with Rome.) Laurence Murphy says the reason was that Jin was unwilling to communicate, in writing or orally, that he was loyal to the pope. “Along with many others, he believed that the Vatican had been infiltrated by the Communists,” says Murphy. “And they didn’t want to trust anything to that bureaucracy, because they thought, ‘In 24 hours it will be known in Beijing.’”

Many in the Vatican doubted Jin’s loyalties well into the 1990s, in part because of allegations made by the Kung Foundation and others sympathetic to the underground Church. Kung himself ultimately refused to meet Jin in the United States, even though the Vatican had asked them to sit down together and try to repair the divide. Kung died in exile in 1999, and his auxiliary, Fan Zhongliang (who lived in Shanghai), succeeded him.

In 2000, at the behest of the Vatican, Fan visited Jin at his office in the basilica near the seminary. At the time, both bishops were in their 80s, and the Vatican had asked them to agree upon a successor. Their candidate would be submitted to the pope, then presented to the diocese’s priests for election and to the CPA for approval. At the very least, the Vatican intended to make clear that the auxiliary bishop would be an open-Church bishop, and that Fan—as an underground bishop—would have no successor. And if all went as planned, the two faces of Shanghai’s Church could be officially unified.

Fan proposed a priest who Jin says “didn’t know the diocese, and the diocese didn’t know him.” Jin’s preferred candidate, Joseph Xing Wenzhi, was unacceptable to Fan. During the years that followed, Fan became incapacitated by Alzheimer’s, a turn of events that Heyndrickx says gave the Vatican the opportunity to secretly recognize Jin as the de jure bishop of Shanghai (in the Vatican’s eyes, Jin is officially the coadjutor of the diocese). Jin will neither confirm nor deny that status, but it’s unquestioned among Church leaders in Europe and North America, and it was tacitly acknowledged at the June 2005 public consecration of Xing as Jin’s auxiliary. Had Jin not been reconciled with Rome, Xing’s ordination would have been declared illicit. Instead, it was attended by Vatican emissaries, hundreds of laypeople from the underground Church, several underground priests, and more than a dozen government representatives.

In the months surrounding Xing’s ordination, Beijing hinted that the ascension of Pope Benedict XVI might offer an opportunity for a deal with Rome, and Benedict seemed to signal a desire to work with the Communist government. That September, he personally invited four mainland Chinese bishops, including Jin, to attend the Synod of the Eucharist in Rome the following month. The government refused on the bishops’ behalf, decrying Vatican interference in China’s affairs, but the point had been made: Jin and the two other open-Church bishops were legitimate in the eyes of the new pope. Jin left the Vatican’s letter of invitation on his desk for a month, explaining to anyone who asked that it “justified everything [he] had done.”

Then, as now, Beijing had two conditions for normalizing relations with the Vatican: the severing of the Vatican’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan (and as a consequence, the transfer of its embassy to the mainland) and an agreement not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. The Vatican has indicated that it’s prepared to meet the Taiwan condition, but the second issue, which encompasses the selection of bishops, is more difficult. Informally, the Vatican might be satisfied with a compromise similar to the process used to nominate Xing in Shanghai. However, public declarations to the contrary, it’s been suggested that both the government and the underground Church have a tacit interest in preventing a deal, since it would inevitably empower the open bishops and their conference, diminishing the government’s influence and the underground Church’s prestige.

Whether an immediate way can be found through the impasse may depend on what Benedict XVI has to say in a promised letter to Chinese Catholics. Leaked reports and the impressions of a source close to the drafting of the letter suggest that it will call, as John Paul II did, for reconciliation between the open and underground churches, and focus largely on pastoral concerns. Ultimately, it’s expected to portray China’s Catholics as largely united after a half century and to acknowledge that any diplomatic solution will need to accommodate both the vitality of the open Church and the struggles of the underground one.

Jin has watched the diplomatic ebb and flow between Rome and Beijing for 20 years, and he’s pessimistic about the short-term prospects for a deal. If he’s wrong, and rapprochement occurs suddenly, China’s Church could change dramatically: The Chinese hierarchy—still split between underground and open bishops in many dioceses—would be reunited, which could smooth over divisions within the Church, but also reopen old wounds. For now, though, Jin’s attempt at an intermediate way still seems likely to chart the future for China’s Catholics.

Of the many goals that Bishop Jin set for himself after leaving prison, none was more personal than the restoration of Shanghai’s cathedral. Over the two decades that followed, the steeples were replaced, the walls and columns were repaired, and a new altar was built. But cost constraints meant that the hundreds of Gothic window frames had to be filled with clear, rather than stained, glass. Even so, Jin did not give up hope that he might once again see the church lit with a mysterious glow, as it had been in his youth.

In 1991, while in Beijing on Church business, Jin was introduced to Wo Ye, the then 28-year-old daughter of Communist Party officials and a recent convert to Catholicism. Trained as a traditional porcelain painter, Wo was working as a newspaper art director. The two became fast friends, and Jin invited her to work for the Shanghai diocese as an artist. Since she had no training in church art, he offered to send her abroad for nearly a decade of study at Catholic institutions in Italy and the United States. Wo agreed, a first step toward restoring the stained glass.

In 2001, after Wo returned to China, formal planning for the project began. Work started the following year, with Wo supervising a staff of nuns from the diocese, and in the fall of 2006, they completed the first stage: 44 windows in ground-level nave chapels depicting the life of Jesus.

The results look nothing like the stained-glass windows of Europe. Images of Christ’s life are executed as variations on traditional Chinese paper cutouts, and the surrounding grillwork is based on Qing Dynasty window designs found in a busy Shanghai market. Chinese iconography complements the Gospel story—a magpie represents the birth of Christ, a coiled phoenix represents the risen Christ—and blazing Chinese characters explain the scenes. Over the next several years, the plan is to fill the upper-level windows with a golden bamboo garden meant to represent paradise and the middle level with figures important to China’s Church, rendered in a fashion that suggests traditional Chinese painting. “The old church appealed to 3 million Catholics,” says Jin. “I want to appeal to 100 million Catholics.”

During my last interview with Jin, Wo stopped by the office to say hello, settling into a chair beside the bishop. The conversation drifted, and Jin told a story that neither Wo nor I had heard before. In the late 1980s, he said, the Italian government invited him to Rome. Zhou Ziyang, then China’s prime minister, gave him permission to go. “The Chinese say, ‘Go and get the real feeling of the Holy See toward China,’” Jin said. “At the time, Zhou Ziyang was ready to normalize relations.” The Vatican was not. “Rome refused me.”

A priest close to the Vatican later wrote to me to say that he’d heard this “rumor” and speculated that Rome had refused permission because of Jin’s poor standing with people in Shanghai’s underground Church. Jin didn’t tell me this. Instead, he looked across the room at Wo, smiled, and asked when the cathedral would be completed.

“In time,” she answered.

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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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