The sun sets over a crucifix at the Chinese Catholic East Cathedral in Beijing in February 2013. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP)
A Vatican delegation of six people arrived in China on Oct. 11 with plans to negotiate with the Chinese government. This much we know.
What remains to be seen is whether these discussions will produce a long-awaited agreement on key issues that have strained relations between the Vatican and China. So far, the signs are tentative but positive.
Some observers in Beijing were surprised because for more than a year, it appeared that Pope Francis' efforts to renew dialogue with Beijing have not gone well, despite kind statements from both sides. All the same, for two years, China had refrained from appointing or consecrating any new illicit bishops. That in itself is positive, and as of May there were clear signals that the Vatican-Beijing dialogue had produced some fruit.
Bishop Martin Wu Qinjing of Zhouzhi, in Shaanxi province, appointed by the pope and consecrated without the approval of China, had been punished by the government and kept in confinement for several years. Suddenly in July, the government allowed Bishop Wu to officially take up his duties as bishop of Zhouzhi.
This was a positive gesture. It was followed by yet another surprising piece of good news: Father Joseph Zhang Yinlin was appointed and consecrated bishop in Anyang Diocese, in Henan province, in agreement with both the Holy See and Beijing. From then on, observers understood that a positive evolution was taking place in the Beijing-Vatican dialogue.
Soon afterward, the news spread that a delegation from the Vatican would go to Beijing in September or October for negotiations with the government. It was commonly assumed that the Vatican would not go to Beijing without realistic hope of achieving progress.
In the corridors, the rumor spread that both sides had agreed to leave aside — for the time being — negotiations on the more thorny questions: the liberation from prison of Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding; or clarifying the situation of excommunicated bishops; or normalizing the situation of the bishop of Shanghai, Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who has been under de facto house arrest since 2012.
Both parties did not seem ready to reach an agreement on these issues. They wished to look first for a consensus on the issue of episcopal appointments. This is the most urgent pastoral issue for the church, since dozens of dioceses in China have no bishop. This causes problems inside the dioceses as well as for civil authorities. Both the Holy See and Beijing will benefit if an agreement is reached on this matter.
On Oct. 11, a delegation of six members of the Vatican's Secretariat of State and of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples arrived in Beijing for negotiations with the government. Nothing was published on the content of these negotiations, but on Oct. 14, the delegation went to visit Bishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing. That visit in itself was a positive signal, meaning that the negotiations went well. This became even more clear the following day when the delegation went to visit the National Seminary, where they were welcomed by (illicit) Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, president of the Chinese bishops' conference, which itself is not recognized by the Vatican.
Both visits were not openly announced but they happened publicly. Priests and others who witnessed the visits considered them to be hopeful signals that more good news is coming. They reasoned that Chinese civil authorities would never allow these visits to be made if the negotiations had not been constructive. Similarly, an official Vatican delegation would never even agree to visit the National Seminary, which is directed by the Patriotic Association, and to even meet with an illicit bishop, if they had no plan in mind for a positive solution to the situation of the illicit bishops who host them.
Even as the delegation left, no official communication was published about the results of the negotiations. It would be wrong to conclude that an agreement was reached on the appointment of bishops. But visits to Bishop Li and, even more so, the visit to the National Seminary and Bishop Ma Yinglin, are clear signals that some progress has been made.
Perhaps higher authorities in both Beijing and the Vatican still have to confirm that some agreement was reached. But it is also quite possible that no official announcement about the negotiations will be offered at all. In that case, we will learn from what happens in the near future whether there has been an agreement. If, in the coming months, more candidates are elected, appointed and consecrated bishops in various dioceses — in agreement with both Beijing and the Holy See — then this would confirm there is an agreement.
But the Vatican delegation's visit leads to even further speculation. Bishops' conferences play an important role in the process of the appointment and consecration of bishops throughout the Catholic Church. Could it be that the Vatican delegation's encounter with Bishop Ma Yinglin means a normalization of the bishop's situation is also forthcoming?
Would this also mean that an agreement is being discussed about the division of dioceses in China? Many years ago, the Chinese government introduced new divisions and new borders to several dioceses in China. The Vatican has never recognized these new divisions. An agreement on the appointment of bishops also would imply that the role of the bishops' conference is clarified and that the division of dioceses is accepted by both partners in the agreement.
Neither the Vatican nor Beijing has so far published any official statement on what was achieved during the negotiations. But the Vatican delegation's visit gives clear signals that observers inside and outside the church see as very hopeful.
They confirm that the dialogue, which was revived by Pope Francis and his team, is yielding fruit. What fruit? I believe that Beijing and the Holy See have reached an agreement on the appointment of bishops — or that such an accord is nearing its final stage. Events during the coming months will confirm whether this hope is well-founded.
Missionhurst Father Jeroom Heyndrickx is the founder of the Taiwan Pastoral Institute and founding director of the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation at Leuven Catholic University in Belgium. The foundation is devoted to the promotion of a relationship of cooperation with China.