ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: September 03, 2015 10:58 PM GMT
Pope Francis talks to the press while on a flight to Seoul, South Korea, in 2014. It was the first time a papal flight had flown in Chinese airspace and Francis offered his blessings to the Chinese people. (ucanews.com file photo)
Hong Kong's cardinals appear to be at odds over upcoming talks between the Holy See and China over establishing diplomatic ties.
Cardinal John Tong Hon sees "an improvement and better atmosphere" in China and Vatican relations ahead of the negotiations but stopped short of saying whether this will be enough for progress to be made.
Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a strong critic of China, believes Beijing's authoritarian attitude means ties are nowhere near strong enough for talks to succeed.
China and the Holy See resumed long-stalled negotiations in June 2014 and are now preparing to sit down for further talks in which they are expected to seek a resolution to a major rift over who should appoint bishops.
"The second round of talks is expected to take place in the next few months," an anonymous Church source close to the Vatican told ucanews.com.
Speaking to ucanews.com ahead of the talks, Cardinal Tong said he has seen some good signals coming from both sides in the past few months.
"There are always ups and downs" on China-Vatican relations but "recently, the atmosphere has been quite good," the cardinal said.
One example was the installation of Vatican-approved Bishop Martin Wu Qinjing in June, the cardinal said.
The bishop of Zhouzhi's movements and activities were restricted after he was secretly ordained in 2005. But the government now recognizes him following his installation, he added.
Then, there was the episcopal ordination of Joseph Zhang Yinlin in Anyang diocese in early August, which was the first in three years.
These events show "there is an improvement and a better atmosphere" with regard to ties, Cardinal Tong said.
This perceived recent thaw in relations between China and the Vatican followed a major spat after China ordained three illicit bishops without papal mandate in 2011 and 2012.
The Holy See took the unusual step of clearly voicing its opposition to the ordinations and announcing the excommunication of the illicit bishops.
Relations were strained further in 2012 when the bishops' conference in Beijing, which is not recognized by the Holy See, revoked the coadjutor bishop title of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai after he announced he was quitting the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association during his episcopal ordination.
He is currently confined in a seminary in Shanghai.
However, hopes of an improvement in ties have grown since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis took office in March 2013.
In an interview on the first anniversary of his papacy in 2014, the pope revealed that he wrote to Xi soon after he took office and received a reply from him.
Friendly gestures were seen again during Pope Francis' visit to South Korea in August the same year.
China allowed the papal flight to use its airspace while the Chinese people received two blessings from the pope each time the papal flight passed over the country.
Despite these signs and gestures, Cardinal Tong said he does not know whether both sides can come to an agreement.
"I am watching … as an outsider," said the cardinal who has headed for more than 30 years the diocesan-run Holy Spirit Study Center, which provides research on the Church in China.
Pope Francis has his point men on China-Vatican relations at the Holy See. "They have followed events for 35 years already," he said.
They are Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state and a former negotiator in China-Vatican talks before he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Venezuela in 2009; Archbishop Claudio Celli of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and Msgr. Gianfranco Rota-Graziosi, a section head for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Tong said.
When asked how he reconciled the improved atmosphere with the cross-removal campaign in Zhejiang province, which has seen more than 1,200 church crosses removed in the past 20 months, Cardinal Tong said, "We have prayed for good developments. The relationship will continue."
The situation in Zhejiang is complicated and officials "have not said this is a policy of the central government," he said, adding that he's been told the situation in Zhejiang seems to have calmed down recently.
Cardinal Zen meanwhile, holds out very little hope the talks will succeed.
Dialogue needs participation from both sides so things should not depend only on the Vatican, he said.
The Chinese government has "no intention of creating dialogue. It just demands," he told ucanews.com.
"It is a waste of time. You must from time to time test whether things have changed. You can easily know the situation. If you realize nothing has changed, just don't waste time and don't mislead the people," he said.