SHANGHAI -- "There are other Catholics still in prison," Ignatius Kung Pinmei, the 87-year-old Roman Catholic Bishop of Shanghai, said sadly in a rare interview after his release from 30 years in prison.
The bishop was arrested in 1955 shortly before China severed all links with the Vatican, released from prison in 1985 and declared a free man last month when his parole ended. Relations with Rome have still not been restored, partly because the Vatican maintains diplomatic links with Taiwan, and priests who acknowledge the authority of the pope continue to be arrested and imprisoned.
Kung looked tired and drawn and unable to sustain a long discussion. He lives next to Shanghai's largest remaining cathedral in the residence of the current bishop of Shanghai -- appointed not by the pope but by the only Catholic organization recognized by the government, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The group claims more than 3 million members.
The future of the Catholic Church in China looks bleak. At a 7 a.m. weekday mass, the large Victorian Cathedral of Shanghai, which can seat 2,500, had fewer than 100 elderly worshippers chanting and listening to the Latin mass.
Kung was and is a symbol of the reportedly much larger underground "silent church" whose members are still loyal to the Vatican. After five years of detention, the bishop was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1960 on charges of high treason for allegedly gathering intelligence for imperialists and forbidding young Chinese Catholics to volunteer to fight in the Korean war.
Many observers believe he was arrested but not released like other priests in the late 1970s because of his uncompromising loyalty to the Vatican. "Not to believe in the pope's authority is to be a heretic," Kung said bluntly in the interview when he was let out of prison. "Of course I still believe in the pope's authority and so do the other priests here."
On his visits here, most recently in November, Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila has apparently pleaded with the Chinese authorities to release Bishop Kung as a gesture toward improving relations with the Vatican.
There were rumors after Sin's last visit that the pope is hoping to visit China and relations are about to be restored. Cardinal Sin's father was born in Xiamen, a coastal city to the south of Shanghai, and he appears to have made it his mission to heal the rift between Beijing and Rome. But even if the Holy See switched recognition to the mainland, the Communist Party would not allow the Vatican to impose its authority on issues such as birth control in defiance of state policies.
Nor could the Vatican condone an independent self-governing Catholic Church, which since 1982 has elected and consecrated 22 bishops. The appointment of two bishops in Wuhan without the consent of the pope was one of the reasons for the 1957 break. The bishops were subsequently excommunicated.
At least 10 defiant priests are reportedly still in jail, including two who were charged with "colluding with foreign countries" and carrying out "subversive activities."
Kung declined to talk about his experiences in China's vast gulag system. "It's not worth repeating. I was treated like the others and did some work, but it's normal for Christians to work," he said.