Representatives from the Vatican and China are expected to meet this month in Rome in an effort to finalise a deal on the ordination of bishops on the mainland, a move aimed at ending a long-standing dispute, according to Catholic Church sources familiar with the negotiations.
The sources said China was preparing to ordain at least two bishops before the end of the year and these appointments would have the blessing of the Vatican. A person with ties to the leadership in Beijing confirmed these ordinations would go ahead.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was sincere in its aim to improve ties with the Vatican and was making considerable efforts to do so.
When asked about representatives from the Vatican and China meeting in Rome, Hua said the two sides had effective channels for dialogue.
“We are willing to make joint efforts with the Vatican to meet each other halfway and keep improving bilateral ties with constructive dialogue,” she said.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis said the Vatican’s relations with Beijing were “good”, making the comment after receiving a gift from President Xi Jinping via a delegation, a gesture observers saw as a sign momentum for improved ties was strong.
Also earlier this month, the BBC Chinese website and the Voice of Germany reported the pope met a Chinese delegation led by Bishop Xu Honggen, who is attached to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is recognised by the state.
Beijing-Vatican ties have been strained by conflicts over the appointment of bishops and the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan. With Pope Francis’ support, China and the Vatican restarted a political dialogue in 2014.
In August, the head of Hong Kong’s Catholic Church revealed the Vatican and Beijing had reached an initial agreement on the appointment of bishops on the mainland. During the August meeting in Beijing, the sides agreed on the principles that would govern the appointment of new bishops, people with knowledge of the talks said.
In yet a further sign of progress, the Vatican has reached a decision to recognise at least four Chinese bishops who were appointed by Beijing without the consent of the pope and so are considered illegitimate by the Holy See, according to Catholic Church sources and others briefed on the talks.
For the Vatican, an agreement on the ordination of bishops is important because it would lessen the possibility of a formal split within the Catholic Church in China, which is divided between a community that follows the state-sanctioned Catholic hierarchy and an “underground” community that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome.
A deal on the ordination of bishops would help to unite these two communities, church and Vatican sources said.
Separately, a person with ties to the leadership in Beijing said the new bishops would be ordained in Chengdu and the city of Xichang, in Sichuan province.
An agreement “would definitely remove the risk of a schism, which for 60 years has been a potential threat,” said Elisa Giunipero, a researcher at the Catholic University of Milan who has studied the history of the Catholic Church in China for 20 years.
For Beijing, better relations with the Holy See could improve its international standing and ultimately pry the Vatican away from Taiwan. Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it was paying close attention to the developments and exchanges between Beijing and the Vatican, adding that Taipei and the Vatican had long been friends and had “firm” relations.
Additional reporting by Staff Reporter