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from issue no. 05 - 2007

CHINA. The Pope’s letter and the future of the Catholic Church

Praise of flexibility

«The election of the bishops of the Latin Church is up to the Holy See. But in the past it accepted agreements with Mussolini and Francisco Franco on this point. Why not proceed in an analogous way with the Chinese government?». Interview with Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, the “Patriarch” of Shanghai

Interview with Aloysius Jin Luxian by Gianni Valente

Now, when consulted, he raises his hands, declaring himself to be «a poor half-deaf old man». A sly Jesuit’s trick, a wink at his interlocutor. Everyone knows well that Aloysius Jin Luxian, Bishop of Shanghai, in spite of his ailments, is gifted with a sharp mind. And his gaze is unchanged.

Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian celebrating mass in the shrine of Sheshan, 1 May last

Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian celebrating mass in the shrine of Sheshan, 1 May last

May is the month of pilgrimages, to Our Lady of Sheshan also, the shrine that rises on a hill in the countryside outside Shanghai. How did it go this year?
ALOYSIUS JIN LUXIAN: Our Lady of Sheshan has been the shrine of Shanghai since the 19th century, but already by the ’twenties of the last century it had become a national shrine. So every year, beginning in the second half of April, groups of pilgrims arrive from every part of China. This past year more than seventy thousand people made the pilgrimage. The first of May is the culminating moment. That day there are always more than ten thousand pilgrims who come from all over the country. This year we already began to greet the Madonna at the foot of the hill. All the way up we prayed, sang, strewed flowers. I celebrated a solemn Eucharistic liturgy when we arrived at the top. The Basilica can hold a little more than three thousand faithful. The majority of those present heard mass from outside the church. There were so many people that had it rained it wouldn’t have wet the ground.
Two years ago you consecrated the young priest Joseph Xing as auxiliary bishop who, according to the prevision, should become your successor. How is Xing’s work proceeding?
JIN: Xing was nominated by Rome. Two years ago I consecrated him auxiliary bishop. He works very well. His main responsibility is the pastoral work of the diocese. We have 140 churches and 150 thousand faithful. At first we hoped that the underground communities would acknowledge him, because he was nominated by Rome. But reality is not so simple. The underground bishop has already lost his memory. The Vatican representative in Hong Kong has named a vicar general for the underground community. Therefore they think here that Rome is not really hoping to allow the underground communities to emerge from the underground.
When will Xing take your place at the head of the diocese?
JIN: He himself doesn’t want the succession to take place immediately, because he is very young, the diocese of Shanghai is large, the situation is very complicated. Moreover, according to Canon Law, Xing is only auxiliary bishop and does not have the right of succession. Therefore I too am waiting for Rome to nominate him coadjutor bishop and for him to obtain the authorization of the government. As far as I am concerned, I would like to hand over to him tomorrow. After all, I am already 91 years old...
The nomination and the consecration of Xing seemed a model for all of China: nominated by the Apostolic See, elected by the representatives of the diocese, approved by the government. Then, in 2006, there were new illegitimate ordinations.
JIN: I hope indeed that his consecration becomes a model, so as to find a solution to the question of the ordination of bishops. But the matter is not so simple. A foreign diplomat told me that in order to do something in China you must in the first place have patience, then you need to persevere, and you have to pay great attention to tactics.
Meanwhile, in April, Michael Fu Tieshan, Bishop of Beijing, died.
JIN: Bishop Fu Tieshan died after an illness that lasted more than two years. But although he had the opportunity, he did not prepare for his succession in time. And that is a great pity. I hope now that the Holy See and the Chinese government develop good relations, so as to avoid unnecessary problems.
The shrine of Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai, dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians

The shrine of Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai, dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians

But now all are awaiting the Pope’s letter to the Chinese Catholics. What, personally, do you expect from this document?
JIN: The faithful of the whole Church in China are waiting for the pastoral letter of the Pope, because it is such an important thing. I have no doubts about the Pope’s knowledge of the situation of the Chinese Church, his deep love for China and his trust. I believe that the letter will be a milestone in the history of the Church in China. And I hope that the “post-letter period” comes soon for the Chinese Church.
The missionary Jeroom Heyndrickx has written that the papal letter will have to answer a crucial question looming since the ’eighties: that is whether the priests and the faithful of the “official” communities and those of the underground can celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments together.
JIN: I have read Father Heyndrickx’s article. He understands China and loves the Church of China. I hope also that the officials concerned study this article and find themselves in agreement with its considerations.
Cardinal Zen hopes above all that in the letter there will be clear rules to which all will have to submit to prevent continuation of the equivocation of an “independent” Chinese Church. Is it useful as you see to clarify the issue at this point?
JIN: I’ve also seen Cardinal Zen’s statement, in which there was also news about the meeting organized in January by the Holy See to deal with the issue of China. At the end of that meeting they published a very short report, that was very good and that I greatly appreciated. Apart from that, no other information has been published. I would like to say a few things. First: apart from some single exceptions, all the Chinese Catholics have a spirit of deep love and perfect obedience to the Holy See; speaking for Shanghai, I’d hazard that a hundred per cent of the faithful obey the Pope absolutely. Secondly: in the Chinese Church there is no issue of independence and, I say it again, the Chinese Catholics absolutely do not want the Catholic Church of China to separate from the Pope, on the contrary they deeply despise the people who plot for the separation of the Church in China. Thirdly: the issue of episcopal ordination is not the only one that needs to be clarified. I hope that other issues are resolved also. On my own behalf, I want to say that the so-called “eight points” originating from the Congregation for Evangelization of 1988 [that prohibited full sacramental communion with the priests and bishops registered with the Patriotic Association, ed] are no longer of use.
You too accepted being ordained without explicit approval from Rome and were considered for long years an illegitimate bishop. What difference is there between accepting illegitimate ordination in China in the early ’eighties and accepting it today, in 2007?
JIN: I became auxiliary bishop in 1985, without having obtained the nomination of the Pope. But the circumstances of 1985 and 2007 are completely different. At that time it was impossible to make contact with Rome. Before my ordination I invited the priest Tang Han from Hong Kong and Father Murphy of the United States so that they would be present at the ceremony. They came and gave me great comfort. I knew that they would come, and I thought that if the Vatican had not been in agreement, that would have been impossible.
The international community has everywhere accepted – even in Muslim or Communist countries – the fact that the nomination of bishops is up to the Pope, and that that does not constitute a danger to national sovereignty. What prevents this principle from also being accepted in China?
JIN: The bishops serve to guarantee the apostolic succession and the validity of the sacraments, and are not the political leaders of a foreign power. I hope that the Chinese government also can understand this circumstance and that a solution be reached through dialogue. In the past the Holy See made treaties with the Italy of Mussolini and the Spain of Francisco Franco to resolve problems of the kind. Why should the solution of the same problems in an analogous way, with the Chinese government also, be impossible? I’m of the opinion that principles must be safeguarded, while there can be a certain flexibility in their application. In relation to Christianity China suffers the conditioning of past history. With the passage of time certain misunderstandings can be overcome.
The recital of the Rosary in the “church of the south” (Nantang) dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, in Beijing

The recital of the Rosary in the “church of the south” (Nantang) dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, in Beijing

According to some observers it is the leaders of the Patriotic Association who are hindering the normalization of relations between the government, the Chinese Church and the Holy See.
JIN: Goodness knows, perhaps some people in the Patriotic Association do not want diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican to be stabilized, because they could lose power. But I personally think that the Patriotic Association cannot intervene in the political decisions of China. It would be enough that some figure of high political standing decided to re-establish relations with the Vatican, and the Patriotic Association would no longer be able to put up obstacles.
In many situations in the past and in some cases still today the Apostolic See allows civil governments to be directly involved in the selection of bishops. Which model could be adapted to the Chinese situation?
JIN: The election of bishops is up to the Holy See, that principle must be affirmed. But since the political, historical and economic context varies according to each country, the Holy See often forms concrete agreements with the governments involved. I always hope that the Chinese government and the Vatican will enter into an agreement that includes the issue of the nomination of the bishops. Vietnam could be taken as an example: the Vatican proposes two candidates and the government chooses one of them. It is said that the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of the United Front of the Central Committee and the National Office for Religious Affairs sent a delegation to visit the cardinal of Hô Chí Minh Ville to get a better understanding with his help of the issue of the nomination of bishops in Vietnam. I think that this also indicates in some way the tendency of the future.
The problem is that among the Chinese Catholics, many, looking at the history of the last fifty years, think that authentic faith demands the refusal of any submission to civil power. How do you think of that view?
JIN: The attitude of the majority of the Chinese faithful is the following: in the first place, we obey the teaching of Jesus, «Give to Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God’s». We also follow what the apostle Paul taught us in the Epistle to the Romans: «Everyone should be subject to the lawful authorities; since there is no authority if not from God and those that exist are established by God». Saint Paul says also that «The governors are not to be feared when good is done, but when evil is done». For him «it is necessary to be subject, not only for fear of punishment, but also for reasons of conscience», and to give «to everyone what is due to him: to whom the tribute, the tribute; to whom taxes, taxes; to whom fear, fear; to whom respect, respect». Here the government of the Communist Party was established sixty years ago. Since then it has been the effective government of China. And the current one is the best in the history of the People’s China. Why should Catholics who represent less than one per cent of the population oppose themselves to the Chinese government?
One knows that the Chinese leaders have difficulty in grasping the true sacramental nature of the Church, which is always judged to be a political entity. What do you think would be a good way to overcome such misunderstandings and reservations?
JIN: The Chinese government is materialist, because it takes Marxism as its parameter. It will be difficult to rid the Chinese government of their vision of religion. The unexpected changes in Eastern Europe have confirmed the opinions the Chinese government nourished about the political role performed by the Catholic Church. I think that reality will prove that the Vatican is not seeking some political objective, and faced with the facts the Chinese government will be able to change its attitude toward the Vatican.
The reconciliation between the two communities is difficult because of the two psychological attitudes that mark them. The underground adherents sometimes seem like the “laborers of the first hour” worried that the latecomers will get the same wage as them. Those who attend the open churches sometimes consider the underground faithful as “prodigal sons” who must recognize that their choice of a life of faith lived outside state control was mistaken. What can help towards reconciliation?
JIN: Reconciliation and the return to unity between the registered and non-registered communities faces great difficulties. Now the attitude with which the official and the underground churches are awaiting the pastoral letter of the Pope is not the same one. We are full of confidence and await the pastoral letter of the Pope with relative optimism, we guarantee that we will accept it with enthusiasm. The underground cannot avoid having some worries, or the fear of being repudiated, that is reflected in articles full of resentment written by some priests of Taiwan. I think that such worries are superfluous. The Church is a merciful mother. The Holy See will deal with us with the heart of a merciful father. Both us and the underground must get rid of the worry of being rejected.
A girl entering the Beijing church of the Immaculate Conception to attend mass

A girl entering the Beijing church of the Immaculate Conception to attend mass

In China there are young people who are becoming Christian now and know nothing of the history of the Chinese Church. Given the lasting divisions, sometimes the glorious past of martyrdom and of witness risks also becoming a burden.
JIN: In China today there are many young people who seriously face up to the great questions of human life. They have had little contact with the virtues of the ancient morality. After the liberation the traditional virtues were not guarded and valued. Now, in consumer society, where economic power dominates, there are young people who feel empty in their hearts. They would like to know Christ. Having known Christ, some become attracted and become Christian. These people do not know the history of Christianity in China. Time goes on, what is important is to look to the future. I personally think that it’s not necessary to speak to these young people about our troubled history. I hope rather that with the Spirit of Christ they can live in the society of the future and participate in its construction. And may it be so.
For long periods of your life you have been misunderstood. They have called you the “red bishop”, or indeed the “yellow Pope”... What worries you, and what comforts you now, when you look at your experience and at the present condition of the Chinese Church?
JIN: There are those who say that I am an enigma. Here nearly all the old bishops have been in prison and became bishops after their release. About them, in general, there have not been mutterings, they are all well considered abroad also. What is now said about me within China is generally positive: my speaking with frankness is appreciated, and it is believed that I am politically transparent. But in foreign countries so many slanders continue to be spread about me as to hide the heavens and the earth. I don’t know how to explain it to myself, and in any case I laugh about this, and I do not want to judge. What preoccupies me is the present and the future of the Church in China. It is now faced with many urgent matters. We must protect our priests, seminarians and nuns from the pollution of the outside world so that they be true witnesses of Christ: this is the most important thing, we must concentrate all our energy on this point. Moreover, in politics and the economy China is advancing by giant steps. I think that in less than twenty years the role China will assume will be very important for the entire world. A billion three hundred million Chinese aspire to create a harmonious society. I hope that the Church can make its contribution to this process. In this circumstance I would not indeed want a division, a disharmony in the Church to show. Just at the moment in which all the Chinese are involved in realizing a great economic and civil miracle, I hope that the ten million Catholics do not assume an isolated position regarding this great multitude of people, I hope that they do not sing out of tune, with the result of finding themselves emarginated in the future. I pray you to implore God for us. I hope that those who can will use their influence to guide our Church in China to internal harmony, to the harmony of the whole Church in China with the universal Church, so that here also we can be members in communion with the same body.

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