Pope Francis says the Vatican’s relations with Beijing are “good” and that he has just received a present from President Xi Jinping, a gesture observers saw as a sign the momentum of Beijing-Vatican ties is running high.
The pope, speaking aboard the papal plane while flying home from Azerbaijan on Sunday, said Xi had just sent him the gift via a delegation that had attended a Vatican conference.
Working groups were now “slowly” discussing relations, which were severed after the communist takeover in China, Pope Francis added.
“They’re talking slowly, but slow things are good. Things that move fast aren’t good,” the pontiff said, adding: “The Chinese people have my highest esteem.”
He also said the Vatican Museums had just held an exhibition in China and that Beijing was due to hold one in the Vatican.
International relations analysts said the giving of a gift showed that relations between Beijing and the Vatican had reached a historic peak.
“They have bridged the key disagreement over appointment of bishops. Building diplomatic ties is just a matter of time,” said Professor Edward I-hsin Chen at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.
In August, the head of Hong Kong’s Catholic Church revealed that the Vatican and Beijing had reached an initial agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops in mainland China in an effort to secure a breakthrough in bilateral ties.
Cardinal John Tong Hon said Beijing was now willing to reach an understanding with the Vatican on the appointment of bishops on the mainland, to seek a mutually acceptable plan.
Under the initial agreement, the pope would choose from a list of candidates recommended by a conference comprising bishops from the open and underground churches.
Citing the “Vietnam model”, Tong said the practice of appointing bishops could be adjusted to what was feasible in the local situation. Under the model agreed by the Vatican and Hanoi in 2011, the nomination of bishops follows procedures approved by both the Vatican and the Vietnamese government.
Deteriorating ties between Beijing and Taipei’s new pro-independence government had helped fuel Beijing’s effort to court the Vatican, the only European state with official diplomatic ties to Taipei, Chen said.
“Beijing already used the Gambia as an example to show they won’t worry about Taiwan’s diplomacy under the new DPP government,” he said.
Almost three years after the African country cut its ties with Taipei, Beijing built full diplomatic relations with the Gambia this March.
Chen’s remark was echoed by Jiang Shixue of the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“There was a diplomatic truce [between Beijing and Taipei] during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, but cross-strait relations have been more uncertain since [President Tsai Ing-wen] was sworn in,” Jiang said. “[Xi’s] sending the gift says a lot about the warming ties [with the Vatican].”
The Vatican severed diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1951, two years after the communists came to power. Beijing oversees more than 12 million Catholics through the party-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Beijing-Vatican relations have been strained by conflicts over the appointment of Catholic bishops and the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan. With Pope Francis’ support, Beijing and the Vatican restarted a political dialogue in June 2014.
The pope also outlined his 2017 travel plans, saying he would visit Portugal next year and was “almost sure” he would go to India and Bangladesh.
It was still undecided where in Africa he would visit and whether Colombia’s peace accord was certain enough to enable a papal visit.
The pope’s travel schedule is complicated by the fact that next year is already full of appointments with visiting bishops, whose visits this year were put off due to the pope’s Holy Year of Mercy, which ends in November.
Additional reporting by Associated Press