Despite a serious illness two years ago, Aloysius Jin seems in fine form. He switches continuously between French and English, and cracks a joke about Prince Charles's succession to the British throne ("He's impatient, he's been waiting so many years"). Jin also speaks German, Italian and Latin--languages he mastered while studying theology in Rome in 1949 and 1950, just as the Chinese Communists were taking power in his homeland. Today, Jin, 89, heads the Archdiocese of Shanghai and is a key figure in China's state-sanctioned Catholic Church. Jin, who says he comes from a long line of Shanghainese Catholics ("maybe 10 generations"), was long considered a pawn of the Chinese government. But now he may be helping to forge a long-awaited rapprochement between Beijing and the Holy See.
The key breakthrough came last summer, when Jin consecrated his auxiliary bishop and heir apparent, Xing Wenzhi, 42. The road to that moment was a convoluted one. Four years ago Jin sought Vatican approval for Xing, a former student in his seminary whom he calls "very devout, a very fervent Catholic, a good priest." At the time, "Rome hesitated, thinking he was too young," recalls the aging bishop. So his protege was sent to study in the United States, where he learned English with the Maryknoll fathers. There, a Vatican emissary met Xing, prayed with him--and agreed he was an exemplary nominee. In 2004, Pope John Paul II himself blessed Xing's nomination. Then Beijing also gave its approval. The June consecration marked the first time a prominent member of the state-sanctioned church has sought Vatican approval first. Since then at least two other auxiliary bishops have similarly been agreed upon and consecrated.
Perhaps even more important, Xing's case marks a shift in the Holy See's approach toward China's so-called underground church--Vatican loyalists who've been harshly treated by Chinese authorities. Shanghai has an underground Catholic congregation headed by Joseph Fan, now suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Fan, too, had sought the Vatican's blessing for his protege to succeed him as head of the congregation. But, says Jin, "Rome said, 'No... only a successor for Bishop Jin.' " That means Rome now prefers "no division" between the two congregations, says Jin. Writing in a journal that reflects Vatican thinking, German Jesuit theologian Father Hans Waldenfels suggested in October that successors to underground bishops would no longer be named by the pope, thereby healing the decades-old split in China's Catholic communities.
The possible breakthrough follows more than half a century of mostly stormy relations between Beijing and the Holy See. After Mao Zedong seized power in 1949, the Vatican's anti-communist envoy was expelled (he fled to Taiwan), and a state-sanctioned "patriotic" Catholic association was launched. In 1958, its bishops began conducting ordinations without Vatican approval, splitting China's 12 million Catholics between the patriotic congregation and the pro-Vatican underground church. Ever since, the question of who has the authority to ordain bishops has been a prickly one--until 2004, when priests from the patriotic church began overtly seeking Vatican approval before agreeing to be ordained by official bishops. About half a dozen bishops in provinces such as Hebei and Shaanxi have been ordained in this fashion.
The April 2005 death of Pope John Paul II raised hopes that a normalization of ties might be imminent. In fact, a series of quiet breakthroughs already had taken place during the late pope's reign. Over the past decade, so many of China's 70 official bishops have sought Vatican validation that today only five or six have not received the pope's blessing, says Prof. Ren Yanli of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China's top Vatican watcher. "The vast majority of bishops of the official church have been legitimized by the magnanimity of the Holy Father," confirmed Msgr. Joseph Zen, bishop of Hong Kong, speaking at a Vatican synod in October. "The church in China which appears to be divided into two... is actually a single church."
To be sure, obstacles remain. Persecution persists in some areas, where Chinese authorities harass underground Catholics and detain their leaders. When Pope Benedict XVI reached out to Beijing by inviting four Chinese bishops--two identified with the underground church and two key "patriotic" bishops, including Jin--to last year's synod, Chinese authorities didn't allow any of them to participate. (Beijing didn't want to acknowledge the ecclesiastical status of underground bishop Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar--since he's not considered an official bishop.)
Historically, Beijing has made two demands of the Vatican. First, the Holy See must sever diplomatic ties with Taipei (which Vatican representatives have said they're willing to do "immediately"). Second, religion must not be used as an excuse to meddle in China's internal affairs. By giving its blessing to clergy who are clearly supported by Beijing, the Vatican hopes to get around the issue--retaining papal authority without needlessly antagonizing Chinese leaders.
The Vatican's relationship with Jin is a clever move. It helps bring Shanghai's patriotic church into the Roman Catholic fold. (Jin claims that 90 percent of Shanghai Catholics belong to the patriotic church, while only 10 percent remain underground.) And for Jin, it appears to validate his decision to work within the patriotic church--even though he's believed to have quietly received Vatican validation sometime in recent years. "Ten years ago, there were still people saying we shouldn't open seminaries, we should wait for the fall of communism," he recalls. "If I'd listened to their advice, there would now be only six old priests like me in Shanghai." Instead, the Shanghai diocese has 62 young priests, and its seminaries have trained 350 priests who work throughout China, he says.
One vocal critic of the patriotic church remains Andrew Tsien, a retired 80-year-old bishop of Taiwan's Hualien diocese. Since the early ' 90s Tsien has approached the Vatican several times in an attempt to gain recognition for China's underground bishops. "But Rome is deaf to their voice," he laments. Normalizing Vatican-China relations isn't a done deal yet, but it's closer.