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No Easy Answers: An Interview with Shanghai's Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 23, 2010 | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's Note: Dr. Anthony E. Clark, Assistant Professor of Asian History at Whitworth University (Spokane, Washington), spent six weeks this summer traveling and researching in China. The following interview was given last week, shortly before Dr. Clark traveled to Hong Kong, where he interviewed Cardinal Zen. That interview, with Cardinal Zen, will appear on the Catholic World Report website in the near future.

Towering above Shanghai's St. Ignatius Cathedral is the recently built chancery of the diocese, and on the fourth floor of this imposing structure is the personal residence and greeting hall of China's most powerful aboveground bishop, the ninety-four-year-old Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, S.J. While millions of tourists pour into the city's World Expo each day to get a taste of the future, the elderly Bishop Jin sits above it all as a vestige of China's past, pre-and-post Communism. The business people who occupy Shanghai's swank new Pudong skyscrapers and the bustling young jetsetters on the Bund are largely unaware of, or don't really care about, the city's Catholic scene; it's quite small in proportion to the rising megalopolis' materialist crowd little concerned with the vicissitudes of politics and religion. But on the landscape of world Christianity, Bishop Jin has become a towering figure, not unlike his new chancery, accessible only through layers of watchmen and coded, locked doors

After passing through one of Shanghai's hippest shopping centers and bastion of modern Chinese materialism, once the center of the city's Catholic community, I was ushered into the private residence of Bishop Jin. He is surprisingly lucid and energetic for a man nearing a century old and suffering from diabetes. He is one of the Church's most enigmatic men, and one often wonders if what he is saying is a direct truth or a circuitous statement, a result of his years of dealing with Communist officials who hold an ever-tighter grasp on his movements as China's most public prelate. He has granted countless interviews in the past, and I met him only a week after researching in the China Province Jesuit Archives, where his name is woven through the history of the Society's work in China. Bishop Jin was unusually candid with me, though I know from experience how vigilant one must be in Mainland China when discussing the government's role in religious matters.

Shanghai's Catholic churches are very different from those in the rest of China; they host more foreigners – and thus collect more foreign money – and are in much better condition than more rural parishes elsewhere. Jin's mark is indelibly evident on the Shanghai Church, for he has received more foreign monetary help than any other Chinese bishop, and has situated the diocese's finances in such way that it is independently solvent. And he is quite proud of this success. Some wonder, however, how much government cooperation facilitated the impressive restoration of his diocese after the human purges and pillaging of Church property during the Cultural Revolution. Whatever Jin did to make Shanghai China's most powerful diocese, some suggest, is less important than the fact that he did it. For the less-powerful but fervent underground community in Shanghai, however, nothing less than unwavering obedience and support for the Vatican is acceptable, and Shanghai is today a penetrating example of how divided the Church in China can be.

There is a little known reality involving Shanghai: Bishop Aloysius Jin is not the main bishop of the diocese, and in a country that has officially illegalized Catholic orders, he is not China's only Jesuit bishop. In fact, the principal bishop of Shanghai according to the Vatican is Fan Zhonglian, S.J., another Jesuit, and Jin is his coadjutor. This of course is not his official status according to China's government; official documents only mention Bishop Jin as the Ordinary of the diocese. Whenever you ask a Chinese bishop or priest about the state of the Chinese Church you hear: "It's complicated."

Bishop Jin is complicated, and he admits it. The nature of his own complexities, he says, is how he makes it all work. During the government attacks on the Shanghai Catholic community in the 1950s, both Fr. Jin Luxian and then-Bishop Gong Pinmei (Cardinal Kung) were arrested and placed in prison for refusing to follow the Party line. Many Catholics now wonder how Bishop Jin, who spent decades suffering in a state prison for resisting Party pressures, has been so successful in Shanghai in China if he hasn't somehow changed his approach.

After presenting Bishop Jin with a few rare photographs of the Jesuit mission in the 1950s, we began to discuss the general setting of the Chinese Church today and how he has navigated through the intricacies of being a Catholic bishop in a Communist country. He said:
"Yes, it is very complicated here, and I have had to be, how do you say, both a serpent and a dove. I am both a serpent and a dove. The government thinks I'm too close to the Vatican, and the Vatican thinks I'm too close to the government. I'm a slippery fish squashed between government control and Vatican demands. When I got out of prison the Church here was in ruins; after I replaced my predecessor [Bishop Aloysius Zhang Jiashu, S.J. – consecrated illicitly], I wrote hundreds of letters to Catholics all over the world asking for money to restore the Catholic community here in Shanghai. Most of my money came from Germany – some came from America and other European countries. I received nothing from the Vatican. I tried to get the prayer for the Pope restored in the Missale Romanum. At that time the government forbade us from two things: we could not implement the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council – this would have been viewed as capitulating to the Vatican – and we were forbidden from reciting the prayer for the Pope during Mass. As far as the government was concerned the Church in China was entirely independent from Rome. I made ten trips to Beijing to ask the authorities to allow us to pray for the Pope in Mass, but they were against it. So, since we had to use the old Mass I contacted a German friend and asked him to save as many volumes of the Missale Romanum as he could – this was after the Council and everyone was throwing them away. He sent me more than 400 discarded books with the prayer for the Pope in them, which I distributed. I also had new copies printed in Shanghai and sent them out for use elsewhere. I succeeded. This is when the Pope's name was openly mentioned again in the Mass."
Despite his often-valiant resistance to state control over the actions of the Church, I noted that he is still called China's "patriotic bishop." I asked for an example of how he has used his position to gain more freedom from the Patriotic Association for the Church in his diocese.
"I'm not a 'patriotic bishop'; I'm just a Catholic bishop. Look, I had a recent book published on the Diocese of Shanghai and the Patriotic Association does not appear in it once. In fact, when the Patriotic Association office moved temporarily away from the cathedral and chancery I quickly occupied the space for another use. So, when they wanted to move back there was no place for them – Shanghai thus does not have a Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association."
Perhaps one of the most openly criticized of Bishop Jin's positions is his view that the underground Church should converge with the state-sanctioned Church. Jin seems to advocate the complete dissolution of the underground community. Some analysts, including myself, have suggested that China's official and underground Churches are becoming less distinct, an opinion that Jin adamantly disagrees with. He also renders several somewhat acrid criticisms of Cardinal Joseph Zen's open recommendation that the underground Church remain underground. Bishop Jin says:
"No, it is not at all true in China right now that the line between us and the underground is disappearing. In fact, the division is growing worse. Few people really understand that we in the sanctioned Church suffer more because we are completely in the open – subject to the government's constant scrutiny. First, let me outline the situation in general terms. Some people think that the underground Church is the true Catholic Church in China, and that they are the only ones truly loyal to the Pope. They also state that they are more obedient than the sanctioned community. This is largely untrue – actually, the government knows where we are at all times – we live under enormous pressure to acquiesce to Party demands. The underground community is on the other hand free to move around at will. You know, according to canon law a priest must remain under the jurisdiction of the diocesan Ordinary, but the underground clergy float around all over China at will with great freedom; is this obeying Church law? And, when the Pope wrote his recent letter to China it was the official community that responded with careful obedience to the letter. The underground have almost completely ignored it. Is this obedience to the Pope? Also, when the Pope called for the two Catholic communities in China to heal our differences and work as one Church, Cardinal Zen in Hong Kong encouraged the underground Church to remain firm in their opposition to the sanctioned community. Is this what the Pope wants?"
In Bishop Jin's view, the chasm between the two divided communities will remain until after the eras of Cardinal Zen and Mr. Liu Bainian, the chairman of the Patriotic Association, come to a close. "These two men are obstacles in the Chinese Church right now, and until they are gone we will still be unable to reconcile the line between the underground and aboveground communities. As long as Liu wants the Church here to be entirely independent some Chinese Catholics will remain underground, and as long as Cardinal Zen tells the underground to remain separate there will be no unity."

I redirected our discussion toward the sufferings endured by Catholics in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and Bishop Jin's expression became solemn as though this were a subject with raw emotional attachments. He simply remarked that, "During the Cultural Revolution many, many holy men and women suffered and were killed, but this is a subject better left to a later time. Now is not a prudent time to discuss these things." And finally I asked if there might be something he wished could be conveyed to the Pope.
"I would first of all say, 'Thank you. Thank you for understanding China's Catholics, as you showed in your recent letter.' The letter the Pope wrote to the Church in China was beautiful. I would additionally tell him that we love him. We love him and pray for him. We have been praying for him especially through his recent difficulties; the Church in China is on his side. The Church in China prays for him, and the diocese of Shanghai prays for him. Finally I would tell him that despite the little help we have received from Rome, I still serve the Vatican. I am still loyal to the Vatican. I am so happy with this Pope; I think he deeply understands the Church in China. He should use more discretion, however, when listening to the advice of some outside bishops. The situation here is complex."
He continued to offer some personal reflections on particular persons who figured in Shanghai's painful Catholic history, touching affectionately on the former Cardinal Gong, who has become a banner of heroism within the underground Church. They had been old friends before their imprisonment; Gong sat beside Jin during their official "trial." In the end, the predominant themes of Bishop Jin's remarks in this interview centered on how much the Church has improved since his official installment as Shanghai's bishop and how he believes that the underground community should surface to join the recognized Church. This latter point Jin freely admits is contrary to the position of Cardinal Zen, who was also raised in the Shanghai diocese.

The complexities surrounding Bishop Aloysius Jin must be viewed in light of the complexities of his life and context. It has not been easy for him; it was not easy for all Catholics who faced government persecutions after 1949. Thanks to Jin's tireless efforts Shanghai currently boasts a vibrant Catholic community with a well-appointed and attended seminary, and large number of restored and dynamic churches. While some say this was all accomplished through compromise, others praise his shrewdness as beneficial to the Church.

He is a warm and welcoming and affable man, but he is also uncommonly judicious, for in China there are no easy answers. Catholic bishops, both underground and official, are forced to navigate through uncertain waters; they are compelled to be both serpents and doves. As I left Bishop Jin's residence he told me: "I was born during the reign of Pope Benedict XV, and I'll probably die during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI. I've lived my life framed between to good Popes, and I hope I've been a good bishop."

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Interviews, and Excerpts:

A Visit to China's Largest Catholic Village | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 12, 2010
"Oh, that I might be found worthy of martyrdom!" | From the Introduction to The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs | Gerolamo Fazzini
On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
"Weaving a Profound Dialogue between West and East": On Matteo Ricci, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
China, Catholicism, and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. and Carl E. Olson | Dec. 29, 2008
The Church in China: Complexity and Community | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | December 22, 2008
China's Catholics of Guizhou: Three Days with Three Bishops | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | October 3, 2008
China's Struggling Catholics: A Second Report on the Church in Beijing | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | September 13, 2008
China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | August 20, 2008
Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson

Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. (above, left) is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.

He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, literature, philosophy, and religion. His current research centers on the history of the Church in China, and he has recently finished a book on the Catholic martyrs saints in China. His other interests include East/West religious dialogue, especially between Catholic and Buddhist ideas of faith and salvation. Dr. Clark has written several academic books and articles on the topic of Chinese history and has been a guest on "EWTN Live," "Catholic Answers Live," and Relevant Radio to talk about Catholicism in China. He is also a contributing editor for This Rock magazine.

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