Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian's Legacy for Religious Freedom in China

What the passing of a revered bishop might mean for the country's millions of Catholics.


Ritsu Shinozaki

One evening in the late spring of 2007 I received an excited phone call from a friend with close ties to the Shanghai Catholic diocese. It just so happened, I was told, that the 1947 passport of the then 93-year-old bishop, Aloysius Jin Luxian, was up for sale on a local online auction site. At the time, I had just completed a lengthy profile of Jin for the Atlantic, and though it was much too late to include whatever I might learn from the passport in the article, I didn't hesitate to bid.

After all, Jin, who died on Saturday after a long illness, is arguably the most important, complicated, and controversial Chinese religious figure of the last half-century. Rather than martyr himself, or seek exile, Jin instead spent the last three decades seeking ways to accommodate the rules and dictums of the atheist Communist Party, all the while assuring the Vatican that his leadership and work is avowedly Catholic. It was never easy. "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 told me in 2007. Last November, during our last visit, he used more colorful language: "I am trying to navigate a small crevasse between two giant mountains: the Vatican and Beijing."

Whether or not one agreed with his methods and accommodations, there's no denying his tangible, even quantifiable, accomplishments on behalf of the nation's Catholics. Of these, the one that most impressed the Vatican over the years (according to two individuals in close contact with the Holy See on China issues) are the 407 priests who've been trained at Shanghai's government-authorized and run Sheshan Seminary since it re-opened in 1982. Of these priests, at least 12 are Vatican-recognized bishops (and seven others who haven't been recognized, or have unresolved statuses). The irony, as Jin pointed out to me several times, is that the Vatican had ordered him not to run the seminary, but rather wait until the Communists fell. "What if I had walked away from the seminary?" He asked me in 2007. "I would have been pure, but then who would train the priests? The government? Or should we do as the Chinese Catholics in exile demand and wait for the Communists to fall?"

I purchased Jin's 1947 passport for roughly $200 against one other bidder (presumably, the person who possessed the document in the first place). A few days later, a friend's secretary did me the favor of exchanging cash for the thick document with a "shady character" at a Shanghai park, located near a street market well-known for the sale of stolen and fake antiquities (it was agreed that my Caucasian face was the wrong one for the job).

As I later learned, Jin received the passport in advance of traveling to Rome to receive his doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He was a promising, talented young Jesuit, recently ordained, he frequently noted, by a French bishop of Shanghai. That fact rankled. As recently as 1946, fully 80 percent of China's bishops were white Europeans, many of whom embraced China's Catholic dioceses as the last outposts of colonialism. Even as a young man, he aspired to see Chinese bishops running the Chinese Catholic Church, and his personal development of priests and bishops in his later years was an explicit attempt at fulfilling that dream. But that was in the future; as a young man, he still needed to study in Rome.

In any event, the passport was delivered to me in a gray envelope. It was, I noted immediately, a passport from the Republic of China period that preceded the Communist takeover. When Jin returned to China in 1951, he surrendered the document to the Communist government, presumably never to see it again.

I was struck by the passport photo in particular. In it, Jin was young and optimistic, with none of the wrinkles earned during the 27 years he spent in solitary confinement, work camps, and detention beginning in 1955. Next I noted the thickness: extra pages were attached to the original pages, and more extra pages were attached to the first round of extra pages, and all of those pages -- every last one -- were covered in scramble of visas, stamps, and hand-written notes from immigration officers.

Jin, I knew, had received his doctorate from the Gregorian with the very highest honors. But based upon the travels documented in his passport's pages -- travels that took place while he was excelling at a notoriously difficult academic program -- it appeared that Jin, like the generations of study-abroad students who followed him, had spent his days traveling rather than studying. This didn't completely surprise. As I'd learnt over the years, the bishop was a social man, with a puckish sense of humor, and a genuine travel bug. Indeed, as soon as he was free to travel in the mid-1980s, he roamed the world (except for Rome, where he was prohibited from going). Yet, despite ample opportunity to follow other leading Chinese Catholics into exile (especially those who had spent substantial time in prison), Jin always returned home to what he referred to as "my Catholics."

Several weeks after purchasing Jin's passport, I arranged to return it to him personally at his office. He was happy to receive it, and as we chatted he paged through the document, presumably reliving -- briefly -- the travels of his much younger self, a time when he was free and healthy enough to roam. I asked what he recalled of those travels. "I made many European friends," he told me. "Some are still my friends." He wasn't making small talk: the young priests and other officials he befriended as a young man in the 1940s became the experienced priests, bishops, and cardinals who would defend him and his actions to the Vatican when -- as an older man in the 1980s -- he accepted a government appointment to be bishop without Papal approval. It was a painful decision for Jin, a Roman-educated Jesuit who revered the Church. "But if I did not become bishop then the government would choose somebody less friendly."

If such words weren't accompanied by acts, they might seem like faint rationalizations. But actions, too, helped Jin with the Vatican, and John Paul II who, according to two sources, felt a kinship for the Chinese bishop based upon his own experiences as a bishop in Communist Krakow. Surely, the Pope and his advisors were impressed by the Catholic publishing house Jin established in Shanghai, complete with an imported German printing press, and Jin's own translation of the New Testament as its first run (hundreds of thousands of copies have been printed over the years). Around the same time, Jin installed Chinese-language masses into Shanghai-area churches against the wishes of the authorities, who preferred Latin and other languages that couldn't be understood. Within five years, Shanghai's liturgy was used in Catholic churches across China, including a Prayer for the Pope that Jin received permission to implement (and publish in missals) after multiple visits to Beijing.


Jin's legacy in Shanghai is uncertain. His chosen successor as bishop, Xing Wenzhi, reportedly resigned in December 2011 and has not spoken publicly of his reasons. The next successor, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, publicly renounced the Catholic Patriotic Association, a government-run Catholic oversight organization, at his ordination, and has been confined to the seminary ever since. Nonetheless, Jin's legacy in China, as represented by the hundreds of priests and the 12 bishops he educated, the liturgy he spurred, and the Bibles he published, runs far deeper and longer than what he may or may not have left behind in his beloved home city. It is, rather, a legacy of hard-earned, and hard-to-uproot religious freedom under a Communist Party that's never expressed an interest in fostering any.

And the long-view, it seems, is one that Jin always took. A few months after returning Jin's passport to its rightful owner, I learnt that Jin had actually been in possession of it during the 1980s and 1990s, after it was returned to him by a California Jesuit who had somehow managed to obtain it in Hong Kong under circumstances that are lost to history. Then around 2005 it and several other personal and diocesan effects went missing when he moved his office and living quarters. Jin, though, far from being upset by the theft, instead seemed entertained that an American journalist would be the second one to bring it back to him.

For now, I have no idea where that old passport is, or where it might go now that Jin is gone. But I'm keeping my eyes on the online auction sites just in case it turns up once again, a small but notable mileage marker on the road to religious freedom in China.