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 PAST AND THE FUTURE: Bishop Jin Luxian and his chosen successor, Joseph Xing Wenzhi

Also See:

Interviews: "A Church for China"
Adam Minter discusses his article about Bishop Jin Luxian, the future of Catholicism in China, and life as a writer in Shanghai.

Flashbacks: "The Cross and the Star"
Articles from The Atlantic's archives illuminate the history of China's complex relationship with Christianity.

In a letter dated May 27, 2007, and released at the end of June, Pope Benedict called for reconciliation among China's divided Catholics.

Click here to read Pope Benedict's letter.

Click here to read the Vatican's explanatory note.

Click here to read an analysis of the letter by Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who has served as a Vatican emissary to the Chinese Church since the early 1980s.

On a June day in 1982, Father Aloysius Jin Luxian, a 66-year-old Jesuit just released from prison, walked into Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral for the first time in 27 years. In his youth, the building had been one of the great churches in East Asia, celebrated for its delicate Gothic arches and colorful stained glass. Now the color was gone, replaced by clear glass and harsh sunlight that bleached the cracked columns and tiled floor. The steeples, once among the tallest in Shanghai, were missing, as was the altar beneath which he’d been ordained, in 1945. Jin had spent nearly three decades under house arrest, in reeducation camps, and in prison, so he had few illusions about the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward religion. But the damage to the church was still hard to bear. St. Ignatius, he learned, had been converted to a grain warehouse during the Cultural Revolution, and the authorities had spent three days burning most of the diocese’s Catholic books in front of the church.

Now services were being held again. But open prayers for the pope were strictly prohibited, and scant mention of the holy father could be found in any of the crudely printed books used in the cathedral. Mass was still in Latin, unintelligible to most Chinese. The current bishop had been ordained without approval from Rome, by a Communist government determined to erase the memory of Shanghai’s still-incarcerated bishop, Ignatius Kung (Gong) Pin-mei. Everything was under the direct control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the 25-year-old government agency that oversaw Chinese Catholic life.

Yet on Saturday nights, the church was packed, its pews filled with 2,500 or more parishioners. Morning Mass wasn’t quite as crowded, but it happened, and regularly. Elsewhere in Shanghai, four more Catholic churches were holding services, and they, too, were packed on Saturday nights. All these parishioners were attended to by 60 elderly priests, who’d submitted to living together in a single house, under strict CPA supervision, because they were determined to live openly as Catholic priests.

Priests had other options, including a nascent “underground” movement, whose members refused to worship in churches registered with the Religious Affairs Bureau, which oversaw the CPA. During the later years of his incarceration, Jin had become familiar with several priests who belonged to this movement, and he’d been impressed by their courage and piety. But the catastrophe that befell China’s Catholics in the 1950s had convinced him that the underground movement, with its determination to confront the Communist Party, would never be able to provide a stable spiritual home for the thousands of Catholics who openly attended Mass in Shanghai every week.

Jin had once hoped that a distinctively Chinese Church would replace the missionary Church of his youth, reconciling his devout Roman Catholicism with his Chinese identity. The old attempts at reconciliation had failed because they’d emphasized one identity over the other, leaving a church that seemed neither authentically Catholic nor Chinese. But now, with Rome separated from its Chinese followers, there was an opportunity to create a truly Chinese Church—for Jin, and for the Catholics he aspired to lead.

Photos by Ritsu Shinozaki
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.

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.

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.”

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.