Joseph Li Shan, Bishop of Beijing, speaking in a Wednesday interview with an Italian television station, said China’s relations with the Vatican were improving and expressed hopes that Pope Benedict XVI could visit China. In response, the Vatican said the invitation was “very positive and encouraging,” but also “premature for now.”
“We very much hope that the Pope will come to China,” Bishop Li told the Italian state television organization RAI. “It's a great aspiration, and we hope it will materialize. Relations with the Vatican are constantly improving.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio that talk about a papal trip to China was “premature for now,” but Bishop Li’s invitation shows “all Chinese Catholics love and respect the Pope and recognize his authority,” the Times reports.
Father Lombardi said there were “still many unresolved problems” in China-Vatican relations.
A spokesman for the state-recognized Catholic Church in China responded to the invitation by commenting to Agence France Presse, “We hope he can visit China as soon as possible. That would be good for the Chinese Catholic Church. However, the first step is to establish diplomatic relations.”
China has demanded that the Vatican end its official relationship with Taiwan before establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing, which broke off in 1951 after the communist takeover.
Further, controversy continues about the Chinese government’s control of the state-recognized Catholic Church. Though the government controls the appointment of bishops to the official church, many new bishops, including Bishop Li, have been consecrated with Vatican approval.
According to the Associated Press, Bishop Li is well-regarded at the Vatican and his installation was seen as a positive sign in relations between China and the Holy See.
The Catholic Church was banned in China through most of the 1960s and 1970s, when all religion was outlawed. At present there are an estimated 12 to 15 million Catholics, many of whom worship outside of the state-approved church and are often arrested or harassed.
In his remarks to RAI, Bishop Li denied there was an underground Church, saying, “the problem of clandestine Catholics does not exist.”
Pope Benedict has made the improvement of relations with China a priority of his papacy. Last year the Pope sent a special letter to Catholics in China, in which he insisted there is only one Church in the country.