He’s had more comebacks than Deng Xiao Ping. Deng famously was deposed twice only to bounce back a third time and reshape modern China.
Aloysius Jin Luxian SJ, bishop of Shanghai, has been knocked about and pushed over by life, the Catholic Church in China and at the Vatican, by the Jesuits and the Communist Party on so many occasions you could expect him to be punch drunk by now.
As recently as last year, his patiently prepared succession plan for leadership of the Shanghai diocese came to an abrupt halt in a single speech. His successor, Bishop Ma Daqin, earned the hostility of the Communist Party and removal from office in a single short speech shortly after his episcopal ordination.
So with Ma sidelined and Aloysius Jin’s succession plans thwarted, it was back to the drawing board in Shanghai.
But reversals, challenges, conflicts, misunderstandings and opposition are the staples of Jin’s long life, the outline of which is contained in his memoirs published in Chinese in 2008 with the English translation becoming available in late 2012.
The worst thing he says about anyone in his book, The Memoirs of Jin Luxian: Learning and Relearning 1916-1982 (Hong Kong University Press) is that they are or were naïve. And he says it of himself frequently enough through the account of his own life as it takes its, at times, tortured path.
But what is endearing about his account is the way the almost fresh-faced innocence of the young man still survives in the 90-something’s record of how his long life – including 27 years in various forms of imprisonment – has unfolded. Surprise, wonderment and gratitude flow with the pages.
His childhood was marked by financial reversals for his father and poverty for the family, the death of his parents early in his life and neglect by his extended family in a period of great vulnerability for him and his sister.
An outstanding student, his academic progress was helped by some generous mentors, only to see such preference excite the jealousy of his Jesuit and other peers.
Fast forward to his return to China in 1951, which marks a sharp turn from his stellar academic career in Europe in the 1940s. It is now two years after Mao Zedong has driven the Nationalists from the Mainland and founded the Peoples Republic.
In the following years, he becomes Superior of the Jesuits left in China, rector of the large seminary in Shanghai (a job he returned to in 1982) and senior cleric for a diocese without a bishop.
Then on September 8, 1955, he is rounded up with hundreds of others and begins the 27 years of isolation, control and punishment for crimes only Communists could invent.
All his possessions, including diaries, records and mementos, are confiscated and destroyed.
This makes his memoir all the more remarkable for is its detail of people, places and events that, modestly, the author admits is only his memory because the contemporary and corroborative evidence was destroyed.
The tone and style of this book are quintessentially Chinese. So much of it punctuated with proverbs – Chinese, Latin and French – that gather the story to a point and interpret all that is to follow. His command of Confucius, the New Testament, the pithy aphorisms of Aquinas or Pascal display the fixed points of a distinctively sensitive and educated Chinese Catholic.
And that is perhaps the central paradox in this book: the unalterably Catholic faith and the unassailable confidence of a Chinese patriot.
This book is a first-hand record of 20th century life in China from soon after the fall of the last dynasty, through the early republic, nationalist rule, Japanese invasion, Communist triumph, the demonic turbulence of Mao’s rule, the development of consumerist China and all the corruption and decadence of a Communism grown over-ripe.
It is also the journal of a soul who has never lost his desire for God and his longing to share the experience. And his determination has been for the last 30 years that the Catholic Church not have to make a fourth start in China – in the 21st century as it did in the 13th, 16th and 19th centuries.
Fr Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of the Union of Catholic Asian News