Francis Looks East

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
3 years 2 months ago
Diplomacy at its trickiest. It would be a lasting legacy of Pope Francis if he just allowed the Orthodox to receive Communion at Catholic Masses.
William Rydberg
3 years 2 months ago
Don't quote me, but I think that are already are permitted under very liberal circumstances. But Ecumenism is a two-way street, depending upon the Orthodox National Church, they may have rules against communion with Catholics...
William Rydberg
3 years 2 months ago
BBC recently did a special on religion is the former Soviet Union focussing especially upon the Russian Orthodox Church. They interviewed a Moscow based Deacon who remarked that the overall level of catechesis among even the priests is poor. That the Seminaries and Institutions were basically destroyed during the Soviet era. He cited the example of the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church mentioning sending positive energy from and to the temple (a Church). He said this was an example where even the Head of the Church appears to be confused. Bottom line, is that he said that there is a tendency for drift theologically, suggesting that people think that God is so forgiving, they need not worry about leading inauthentic lives. That's my understanding, in my opinion.. Anecdotally, at least on some of the english language russian orthodox sites, I have read in what are in my opinion, are odd views of Original Sin explained, even going so far as to suggest St Augustine (Latin Father of the Church disliked Greeks?). It seems that many writing this are converts themselves from small protestant sects, that may in my opinion also be taking prejudice concerning the Catholic Church with them. In my opinion...


The latest from america

Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019
The study found Latina immigrant women in Arizona who were pregnant during the contentious S.B. 1070 passage had babies with lower birthweight compared with those in prior years. Average birth weights did not decrease among U.S.-born white, black or Latina women during the same time.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 18, 2019
This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019