Vatican City — Two Chinese Catholic bishops attending a Vatican meeting for the first time following a landmark deal between Beijing and the Holy See said Tuesday they have invited Pope Francis to visit.
“While we were here, we invited Pope Francis to come to China,” Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai said in an interview with Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.
“We are waiting for him,” Guo said.
Last year the pope said he would like to visit China “as soon as they send me an invitation”. The trip would be of great significance as the Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1951. There are an estimated 12-million Catholics in China, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.
Pope Francis has sought to improve relations since he took office in 2013, but previous attempts had foundered over Beijing’s insistence that the Vatican give up recognition of Taiwan and promise not to interfere in domestic religious issues.
However an accord was reached last month which could pave the way for the normalisation of ties between the Catholic Church and the world’s most populous country.
Under the provisional agreement, Francis recognised seven clergy initially ordained by Beijing without the Vatican’s approval.
Guo and bishop John Baptist Yang Xiaotin were personally welcomed by the pontiff to the advisory body meeting earlier this month.
“We have waited for this moment for so long, and finally it is here,” Guo said, adding that the pair had seen the pope daily, staying in the Vatican hotel where Francis lives and talking to him “as sons do with their father”.
He said a trip to China was “like our presence here. Once impossible, it became possible”.
While the Vatican has said last month’s deal with China was not political but pastoral, many believe it is likely to have political repercussions, setting the stage for the restoration of diplomatic ties after nearly 70 years.
That raises questions over the future of official ties between Taiwan and the Holy See — the island’s only official ally in Europe.