Could Pope Francis make important breakthroughs with Beijing’s government and with Moscow’s Russian Orthodox patriarch within the next 12 months? This cannot be excluded, I think, and if either or both were to happen, then it would surely be a major achievement for his pontificate.
A number of signs suggest that progress is being made on both fronts. Here I offer a first take, starting with Beijing.
On Oct. 11 a six-person delegation from the Holy See arrived in Beijing for “talks” with their Chinese counterparts. The delegation, comprising officials from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples departed on Oct. 16, but so far neither side has revealed the content of their conversations.
The one question that would certainly have been on the agenda is the nomination of bishops in mainland China. That has been at the center of discussions for many years, and the periodic failure to resolve it has led to illicit ordinations, excommunications and tensions. The absence of such negative elements in recent times, and the ordination of a bishop approved by both sides, suggests that the Sino-Vatican dialogue has entered a positive phase.
The reason for this may well be that both sides “agreed to leave aside, for the time being, negotiations on the more thorny questions” as the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, a veteran Sinologist at the Verbiest Institute of Leuven Catholic University, said in a recent interview with UCA News. In fact, this is the strategy advocated by Pope Francis, as he spelled out in his talk to young people in Havana last September.
It avoids dealing immediateley with such problematic questions as the detention of Baoding’s Bishop James Su Zhimin; the status of eight illicit bishops and of the underground bishops, as well as of Shanghai’s auxiliary bishop, Ma Daqin; the question of the number of dioceses; and other issues, including the question of freedom of movement for the Chinese bishops.
The October meeting in Beijing was the second since Francis became pope, and it appears to have gone well. I say this because the Holy See’s delegation visited the National Seminary in Beijing (which is under the Patriotic Association’s control) on Oct. 15. There he was welcomed by the rector, Bishop Ma Yinglin, who was ordained without papal approval and is president of the government-sanctioned bishops’ conference, an entity not recognized by Rome. On past visits, the Holy See delegation always avoided meeting Patriotic Association officials and the bishops’ conference leaders. That it happened now suggests something important has changed in Sino-Vatican relations. Also noteworthy, though less important, was the delegation’s meeting with Bishop Li Shan of Beijing on Oct. 14. In the past, delegates of the Holy See were not allowed to meet the city’s bishop, though he was ordained with papal approval, except when one was seriously ill in the hospital.
That all this happened is without precedent since Sino-Vatican talks started three decades ago, and it certainly could not have occurred without high-level clearance. One may conclude, therefore, that China and the Holy See are not only talking but have also begun walking together on the road to the normalization of relations. It is not clear how long the journey will take, but one cannot exclude the possibililty that they could reach their destination within one year.
On the Moscow front, too, there are indications that the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow are actively working toward the first-ever encounter between the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Francis has often expressed his wish for such an encounter, and it now appears there is willingness on the Russian side as well. The Russians ruled out meeting in Moscow or Rome, so alternative venues are now under consideration.
The latest positive signal on this front has come from Bishop Tikhon, the new vicar for the Diocese of Moscow, a rising star in the Orthodox Church and long considered Vladimir Putin’s spiritual advisor. Speaking in Rome on Sept 28, he predicted “something concrete” will come with respect to a meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill. If such were to happen on the eve of the Pan-Orthodox Council in 2016, that would be truly significant.