Home > Archives > 12 - 2004 > The future seen from Shanghai
from issue no. 12 - 2004

The Church faced with new prospect

The future seen from Shanghai

The nomination of bishops. The relations with the underground communities. The wait for an agreement between the Beijing government and the Vatican. An interview with Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, ninety years old and optimistic

by Gianni Valente

Nanjing road in Shanghai

Nanjing road in Shanghai

Aloysius Jin Luxian will soon be ninety. In Shanghai, where business and money conduct the pace of change, his patriarchal eyes noted time ago the features of what experts foresee as being the “Chinese century”.
In his long life as a Chinese priest he thought he’d seen everything. His arrest on the night of 8 September 1955, in the round-up which also caught the heroic bishop of Shanghai Ignatius Gong Pinmei, whom John Paul II made cardinal in pectore in the consistory of 1979. Eighteen years in jail and nine in confinement. And after the dreadful times of the Cultural Revolution, the unexpected re-flowering of the Church in China. Until the episcopal consecration which in 1985 set him at the head of the Shanghai diocese, with the recognition of the pro-government Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics and without having received the apostolic mandate, the approval of the Pope, that is.
But now, once more, the Chinese dash towards the future is posing new questions for this pastor. In the feverish rush toward modernity what will become of the Christian life newly budding on the boundless planet of the former Celestial Empire? Elsewhere there are those sounding a distant alarm: the foreseen eruption of China onto the world stage will end by weakening the Christian roots of Western Civilization. He, as a good Jesuit, follows the shrewd steps of his fellow Matteo Ricci. The Italicus maceratensis who four hundred years ago made himself «a barbarian for the love of Christ» so as to gain entry «into this other world of China», and discovered with joy that the sweet grace of Jesus Christ goes from heart to heart around the world. Caring little about the borders between the civilizations.

Your Excellence, it’s known that you were in hospital for a long time. What did you do in that period? And how are you now?
ALOYSIUS JIN LUXIAN: In effect I was in hospital from 21 April to 16 September for serious heart problems, and my condition was complicated by the diabetes which has been with me for years and which prevented the doctors from performing any surgery (bypass or similar operations). In that practically desperate situation I thought my hour had come and many thoughts crossed my mind: the precariousness of a life that, however long it is, seems too short to us; the need to ask forgiveness from God and one’s brothers for all the mistakes I may have committed in their regard and, in terms of the project that is closest to my heart, the failure to reach an agreement, at the religious level, between my government and the Vatican. I’m amazed that I was discharged from hospital still in reasonable condition. For that I must without doubt thank the good God, to whom every life is entrusted (and this I see in a particular way with regard to my own life), and the doctors who lavished all possible care on me, with tangible results.
Shanghai has become the symbol of what the experts call the “Chinese century” …
JIN: It’s true, Shanghai is something of a symbol for the future of China. The whole world is by now talking of our country because of the rapid development registered at every level. I see it rather like a plane at the take-off stage: the run-up is crazy, the engines roaring at maximum capacity and lifting it into space; but there’s still a huge gap before getting to stable flight. All the premises are clearly there for a successful flight, but, as I said, it’s at the take-off stage. We’re talking about a long haul because, if on the one hand one sees great expansion particularly in the Shanghai area and in all the eastern part of the country, there still remains a vast underdeveloped western area with serious problems of hunger, illiteracy, unemployment and therefore of poverty. There are 30 million people who still suffer from hunger in our country and, as happens in all countries on the path to industrialization, very considerable imbalance emerges between rich and poor, an imbalance that will become even more glaring in the immediate future, but which I hope can gradually be dealt with.
Migrant workers on the streets of Peking. The Chinese economic reforms have produced a growing income differential

Migrant workers on the streets of Peking. The Chinese economic reforms have produced a growing income differential

But Shanghai is also an important city for the history of the Church in China. There’s been talk for some time of your successor. Have you already picked out the young man who could succeed you in leading the diocese?
JIN: I’m now almost on the threshold of ninety and am still in charge of the running of this enormous and most beloved diocese of Shanghai, despite my precarious health. The nomination of my successor is a problem involving our diocese, the government and the Vatican as well. A candidate has already been identified and – something certainly not to be ignored – the governing authorities and the Vatican would agree on this person. However the chosen person is afraid that it would be too onerous a responsibility and has not yet expressed consent. I am praying, and ask all of you to pray the Holy Spirit, so that a situation may soon be clarified or an alternative possibility arrived at.
The nomination of bishops remains a delicate point in relations between the Chinese government and the Holy See. In recent times there have been new developments. As you see it, can provisional solutions be found to meet the demands of control by the government without compromising the rights of the Pope in this matter?
JIN: With regard to the nomination of bishops in China I maintain that the best solution consists in seeking always, with frankness and patience, an agreement between the various civil and religious authorities. The ideal would be for our diocese to propose a candidate ,agreement on whose nomination is then sought from the Chinese government authorities and the Vatican. This goal having been reached, the consecration of the new bishop could go ahead, provided the candidate accepts the responsibility. I hope and wish that will happen for Shanghai.
The cliché hangs on in the West that there are two Churches in China, one faithful to the Pope and the other faithful to the government. What’s your view?
JIN: Why speak of two Churches in China? The Catholic Church is one; we can speak of two groups within it: one that recognizes the authority of the Vatican and is in disagreement with the Chinese authorities and a second group that recognizes both the authority of the Vatican and the authority of the Chinese government and converses with both. I believe it necessary to arrive, through dialogue and by overcoming differences, at collaboration and mutual respect by both these authorities. I believe that various steps in this direction have already been taken though some distance still remains to be covered, but the only objective must be the search for dialogue and collaboration by all parties. Also with you in Italy Catholic Christians recognize the authority of the Vatican, but they’re not in disagreement with the Italian government because of that.
Some years ago, criticizing certain excesses of the underground communities, you emphasized that faith and the Christian life by their nature are testified to and lived out, when possible, in public…
JIN: The so-called “underground Church” has existed for about fifty years. In my way of seeing things, it is a Church that lives separated from the world and that perhaps does not even realize that in the meantime many changes have occurred also on the level of the government-religious authorities relations. The Chinese Communist Party itself has undergone important changes, and it is not the only one: the very attitude of the Vatican authorities towards the Chinese government is in continuous evolution. Sticking to a position that goes back fifty years turns, I believe, into a stance negative for the Church itself. I hope and pray that the underground communities will be capable of looking at today’s situation with clear eyes and receptive mind so as to awake to the progress in government-Church relations made in recent years.
With regard to the nomination of bishops in China I maintain that the best solution consists in seeking always, with frankness and patience, an agreement between the various civil and religious authorities. The ideal would be for our diocese to propose a candidate, agreement on whose nomination is then sought from the Chinese government authorities and the Vatican
In the past, through the famous “eight points”, the Vatican in fact prohibited bishops and priests visiting China from concelebrating with the Chinese priests of the Churches recognized by the government. Some people exploited those dispositions to spread doubts about the validity of the Sacraments celebrated in the “open” Churches. What became of the eight points? Is it true that they have recently been re-proposed as valid?
JIN: The “eight points” go back many years. Now the bishops of the “official” Church are for the most part recognized also by the Vatican. Evangelization is underway and is active in this our Church and does not fear the difficulties and contradictions that I believe exist in any case in every country in the Church-world relationship. In the diocese of Shanghai Catholics are on the increase and the priests ordained before 1950 are few by now. Now there are 76 priests present, 90% of whom were ordained in the last twenty years, after having been trained in the seminary of Sheshan. The priests present in other dioceses almost all belong to the new generation and without their precious presence the Church would not be in the flourishing situation it finds itself in today. I believe that there must be a great desire for dialogue on the part of all for a deeper understanding and mutual respect for differences. In the Vatican also there may be different opinions about our Church. I think that you also, your own magazine, can help in the search for new ways towards continuing dialogue and an ever fuller understanding of the different points of view. There are sorts of “conservatives” who view present reality with the eyes of the past and therefore with a point of view vitiated perhaps by prejudices.
Everybody is debating the role of China in the coming decades, also on the religious plane. According to influential ecclesiastics, Chinese culture, which does not in itself have the idea of a personal God, could become a factor of further global secularization in an already secularized modernity. How do you as a bishop in China consider these preoccupations?
JIN: John, in chapter 3, verse 8, says: «The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit». Customs change, habits change at supersonic speed, an old world dies and new forces emerge. One must not be pessimistic. Also among Christians – especially among Protestants – things move quickly. Suffice it to say that in 2003 the Protestants in China published two and a half million Bibles, and in 2004 three and a half million: all sold! Which means that people read, are interested in the Bible. Christians also, therefore, change at the same speed as others. It is necessary to pray for those who evangelize and not attack them if we find something is wrong. Our understanding and dialogue must sustain their enthusiasm. Within the Church itself there are sometimes people who hinder those who bear witness to the Christian faith. I believe that the Holy Spirit illumines the new priests who should be supported by everyone.
In these terms, what are the essential things to be safeguarded and offered so as to bear witness to Jesus Christ in China? Is there a more suitable way to communicate the Christian message in China?
JIN: The Christian message in China, as elsewhere, is spread by proclaiming the Gospel. The Gospel must be proclaimed and lived. And the core of the Gospel is love and not hate, it is unity and not division, it is concern for little ones and the poor. This year our diocese of Shanghai undertook to enlarge and invigorate its charitable activities. The Church must be present where the poor and the unemployed are, it must be at the service of the poor and not waste its energies on criticizing or attacking those who may also sometimes make mistakes. It’s also necessary to protect, support, defend, the features of the local Church, in every field, from the artistic to the theological and cultural. In the field of art we see that almost all the works of art we have were copied from European ones. We must also advantage and stimulate the characteristics that belong to Chinese art, culture, theology. It’s a task that frequently finds obstacles put in its way by the so-called “conservatives” who still have great difficulty in understanding these needs.
The Chinese political leadership is going through an important generational shift at the moment. What do you think of the new leaders?
JIN: I’m very satisfied with our new government, I appreciate its thinking, its commitment, the opening up towards the great problems of today; I notice its commitment to the poor classes, especially toward the peasants who are in serious difficulty now. It’s a government that seeks to be close to the poor and that is examining the best and quickest way to help them resolve their problems. We must understand that China is an immense country and that the means and time are necessary to achieve substantial changes, but I don’t stop being optimistic: results will come.
John, in chapter 3, verse 8, says: «The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit». Customs change, habits change at supersonic speed, an old world dies and new forces emerge. One must not be pessimistic.
In recent times government authorities at various levels have issued new regulations regarding religious activities and ecclesiastic organization. In the West these regulations have been presented as the expression of the State desire to interfere in the religious sphere. What’s your assessment?
JIN: In the last two years I haven’t attended the meetings held in Peking and neither have I had news, given the state of my health, about the discussions and results of those meetings. I have learned things from Tripod, the Hong Kong magazine; and from the French magazine Églises d’Asie, from the one published in Germany by China Zentrum, from Asianews and so on. Lately then I was in hospital in intensive care and for obvious reasons couldn’t keep up to date on the various documents issued. One needs, however, to realize that the Church in China is in a phase of transition. We shall be able to check the results step by step, taking the necessary time, and especially if we succeed in establishing a climate of dialogue and of mutual respect and understanding. The foreign experts have different opinions. It seems to me that Father Jean Charbonnier, of the Missions etrangères de Paris, is the one who best understands the Chinese situation.
In China, as elsewhere, what is the most realistic attitude for Christians to take towards the civil authorities and their laws?
JIN: «Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s» the Gospel says. And I believe we should all respect that principle.
Are there problems because of interference in religion by the government?
JIN: Problems exist (for example birth control, Vatican/Taiwan relations) which with calm, frankness and willingness we must and can face together, through dialogue. I pray the Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide us on this path of encounter and dialogue.
As you just said there is also a moment of transition in the Chinese Church. You “oldies” were given the gift of safeguarding the faith in the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution. It is said that the young new priests are often frail and eager to enrich themselves. How will it end?
JIN: The “old” pastors are passing and the new generations will take up their inheritance. One has to bear in mind that the Gospel speaks of the presence of corn and tares in every field. In Shanghai the old priests amount to 8 and the new 68; the old nuns amount to 25, the new 90. These new generations will guide our diocese in the future. The great majority of them are passionate about their pastoral work. At this moment in China, too, a lack of vocations is beginning to be felt, and so a lot of care needs to be invested in young people and their religious training.
Your Excellence, when did you visit Rome for the last time? What are your memories of the Eternal City?
JIN: The last time I was in Rome was back in 1950, when I got my degree in theology at the Gregorian University. A half century has passed since then. Since returning to my own country, I haven’t seen Rome again. I can say that my stay in the Italian capital was the happiest time of my life. I think of that fantastic city as a great museum and it is not easy to find another comparable city in the world. I have a wonderful memory of my teacher, Cardinal Paolo Dezza, I remember my classmates, the greater part of them now dead (I’m one of the few surviving). I happily remember Cardinal Costantini who was apostolic delegate in China. He loved China, and when I was in Rome I often went to meet him.
I greet your magazine 30Days with great admiration, and through 30Days, all its loyal readers and ask of all a prayer for this our diocese of Shanghai and for its pastors.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português