Pope Francis urged Chinese Catholics on Wednesday to show they are in full communion with the Holy See.
The appeal is coming amid what appears to be another stall in the Vatican’s longstanding attempts to reach a deal with Beijing over bishop nominations.
Francis made the comments during his general audience, noting that many Chinese Catholics will be marking a feast day dedicated to the Virgin Mary this week in Sheshan, near Shanghai.
Francis prayed that all Chinese faithful “can live their faith with generosity and serenity, and can make gestures of fraternity, harmony and reconciliation in full communion” with the pope.
China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are split between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and an underground church loyal to the pope. These underground priests and parishioners are frequently detained and harassed.
Francis, and before him Pope Benedict XVI, have tried to unite the two communities, and in recent months Vatican officials had expressed hope that a deal to resolve the key stumbling block to reconciliation was nearing completion.
Under the deal, the Vatican would recognize seven bishops not chosen by the pope who have been appointed over the years by Beijing, and two underground bishops named by the pope would step aside. Going forward, the pope would have effective veto power over Beijing-nominated bishops, according to a Vatican official familiar with the talks.
But since the beginning of the year when word first emerged that an agreement was near, China appears to have hardened its position. In February, the government introduced new regulations on religious affairs and has hardened attitudes toward any organization outside the direct control of the Communist Party.
Recent propaganda posters have been popping up around China, saying God can’t solve problems, only the party can. “Go to church each day to study God, no way the spirit can relieve your hardship,” reads one in Henan province south of Beijing. “Go with the party, don’t believe in God, the party will bring us so much happiness.”
Supporters say the Vatican-pushed deal would help the Holy See achieve its years-long goal of bringing all of China’s Catholics ostensibly under the pope’s wing. Critics say the deal is selling out China’s long-suffering underground Catholics to an authoritarian regime.