Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, pictured, and two other Chinese prelates are in the U.S. on a fence-mending mission. (ucanews.com file photo)
Three bishops from the government-sanctioned bishops' conference in China have traveled to the United States to "seek reconciliation with the universal Church," religious observers say.
The trip also coincides with visits to the U.S. by Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Conference President Bishops Joseph Ma Yinglin and his two vice presidents, John Baptist Yang Xiaoting and Vincent Zhan Silu, are in the U.S. for 10 days at the invitation of several universities and Church congregations.
The Holy See does not recognize the bishops' conference. Bishops Ma and Zhan are illicit prelates consecrated without papal mandate, while Yang was ordained a bishop with both papal approval and government recognition in March 2011.
They are there on "a holy pilgrimage to seek reconciliation with the universal Church," said John Worthley, former deputy chancellor of Seton Hall University in New Jersey and an expert on the Church in China who has taught public management at Chinese universities for more than 25 years.
Worthley told ucanews.com that a senior American prelate was given a Bible to give to Pope Francis, and that the three bishops had signed the cover with a message: "We love you, we pray for you, we wait for you in China."
During the visit, Bishop Ma made a public lecture at Yale University's Divinity School on Sept. 17, where he spoke about the history of Christianity in China, according to Tom Krattenmaker, director of communications at the university.
"We are fully aware that the Catholic Church in China is a complex and contested matter. Our hosting of a speaker such as Bishop Ma Yinglin does not represent an endorsement but, rather, our desire to give our students an opportunity to learn about the issues from a source who is directly involved in what all acknowledge to be a complex set of relationships," Krattenmaker told ucanews.com via email.
"At each stop they have professed their love for the Holy Father, their solidarity with the universal Church, and their heartache over the obstacles to realizing the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane 'that they all be one'," Worthley told ucanews.com, adding that the Chinese bishops "are seeking the help of the American Church in the reconciliation effort."
The bishops are due to return to China on Sept 25.
There was no confirmation on whether the Chinese bishops would meet the pope but speculation is rife among Chinese Catholics on social media about whether Pope Francis will meet President Xi, who is also on his first state visit to the U.S. and attending the United Nations' 70th General Assembly Sept. 22-28.
Some Catholics hope they do meet but many others oppose the idea because of religious persecution in China.