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Cardinal ParolinIn an interview which will be published in the January issue of Franciscan monthly magazine Rivista San Francesco, the Vatican Secretary of State talks about the Holy See’s relations with China: “We are in a positive phase”

ANDREA TORNIELLI  vatican city

“We are in a positive phase” and “I would go as far as to say that prospects look promising” even though the journey “has not come to an end yet”.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin is a diplomat who is well aware of how delicate certain negotiations are and he does not tend to exaggerate. But the response he gave to a question regarding the Holy See’s relations with China is confirmation that there is movement and that after the recent thaw in US-Cuba relations, Francis’ diplomacy is now turning its attention to Beijing.

 The Vatican Secretary of State’s interview with Fr. Enzo Fortunato and Roberto Olla will be published in full, in the January issue of Franciscan monthly magazine Rivista San Francesco. Here is what Parolin had to say about the relations between China and the Holy See: “The journey was and still is long, marked by alternate phases and has not yet come to an end. It will end when God wishes it to.”

“I believe we need to adopt a theological approach with regard to our relations with China,” the cardinal added. “We are currently in a positive phase. Both sides have shown a willingness to continue talking and to search for solutions to the problems relating to the presence of the Catholic Church in this vast country. Personally, I would go as far as to say that prospects look promising and we hope these gems will blossom and bear good fruit, for the good of the Chinese Church and the whole world.”

The words pronounced by the head of Vatican diplomacy, confirm the reopening of dialogue. About a month ago, various Hong Kong-based websites and the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper under the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the government of China, revealed that an agreement on the long-standing question of episcopal nominations was about to be reached. This was after a proposal was presented by the Chinese government. The proposal apparently considered some sort of agreed procedure.

The Holy See has always expressed a willingness to find a mutually agreed upon procedure for making episcopal appointments, giving the final word to the Bishop of Rome. In his letter to Chinese Catholics, issued in 2007, Benedict XVI wrote: “I trust that an accord can be reached with the Government” regarding the selection, nomination and recognition of new Bishops on the part of the civil authorities (the letter was written when the then Under-Secretary for Relations with States, Pietro Parolin,  was in charge of China-Holy See affairs).

However, in his letter, Benedict XVI also explained that “the appointment of Bishops for a particular religious community is understood, also in international documents, as a constitutive element of the full exercise of the right to religious freedom.” Benedict XVI pointed out that when the Pope issues the apostolic mandate for the ordination of a Bishop, he exercises “supreme spiritual authority”. This authority is “not … a question of a political authority, unduly asserting itself in the internal affairs of a State and offending against its sovereignty.”

On his way back from South Korea last August – the outbound flight was the first time a Pope had ever been allowed to fly through Chinese airspace – Francis said: “I prayed a lot for that beautiful and noble Chinese people, a wise people … If I want to go to China? For sure! Tomorrow! We respect the Chinese people. The church only asks for liberty for its task, for its work. There’s no other condition.”

So the time to leave the past behind and start with a clean slate could be near. In recent days came the news about the audience the Pope denied the Dalai Lama. Francis expressed his “esteem” for the Buddhist leader but decided not to hold an audience with him or any of the Nobel Laureates gathered in Rome. The Chinese authorities sent out a very clear message in response to this. “China is always “sincere” about improving relations with Vatican,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, pointing out that China has “noticed” the Holy See’s attitude. “China will continue to hold constructive dialogue with the Holy See,” Qin said, adding: “we hope Vatican will make joint efforts with China so that the two sides can meet each other halfway to improve bilateral relations.”

 The measured but crucial words pronounced by the Vatican Secretary of State are to be read in this context.