The Sept. 22 announcement of the deal did not give details, but in a press conference on a flight to Rome Tuesday night, Francis said it provides for a dialogue about eventual bishop candidates, though they will ultimately be appointed by him.
At the same time, the Holy See announced the pope’s decision to recognize seven illicitly ordained Chinese bishops, who had been appointed by the government without papal mandate.
This means for the first time all the bishops of China are in communion with Rome, after years of division between the “underground” Catholic Church in China and the government-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
In his letter, Francis emphasized that though the Church in the country had to go clandestine out of concern for preserving the Catholic community from the control of the State, this “is not a normal part of the life of the Church.”
He said he decided, “before the Lord and with serenity of judgment, in continuity with the direction set by my immediate predecessors,” to grant reconciliation to the seven illicit Chinese bishops and to lift canonical sanctions against them, readmitting them to full communion with the Church.
The deal follows years of discussion, he said, and on his own part, a thorough examination of individual situations and of listening to different points of view: “I have devoted much time to reflection and prayer, seeking the true good of the Church in China.”
“Regrettably, as we know, the recent history of the Catholic Church in China has been marked by deep and painful tensions, hurts and divisions, centered especially on the figure of the bishop as the guardian of the authenticity of the faith and as guarantor of ecclesial communion,” he said.
So, to support the continuation of the Gospel in China, and to re-establish “full and visible unity” in the Church, the pope wrote that it was “essential” to first deal with the issue of the appointment of bishops.
Recognizing that the deal had provoked different reactions and concern for the future of the Catholic communities in China, he said he is aware of the “flurry of thoughts and opinions” which may have caused “a certain confusion.”
He noted that some Chinese Catholics may be feeling abandoned by the Holy See, questioning “the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter,” while others may have hopeful expectation for the outcomes of the agreement.
Pope Francis acknowledged that the provisional agreement has its limits but expressed hope in the fact that for the first time, “the stable elements of cooperation” are set up so that the State authorities and Church authorities can provide good shepherds for the Catholic community.
The agreement is just an instrument, not a solution to all of the existing problems, he said, and “it will prove ineffective and unproductive, unless it is accompanied by a deep commitment to renewing personal attitudes and ecclesial forms of conduct.”
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No Christian can be excluded from the task of offering gestures of reconciliation and communion and of working to build a society which respects the dignity of every person, he said.
Speaking to the universal Church, he said it is now the time to taste “the genuine fruits of the Gospel sown in the ancient ‘Middle Kingdom’ and to raise to the Lord Jesus Christ a hymn of faith and thanksgiving, enriched by authentically Chinese notes.”
He asked the leaders of the People’s Republic of China to continue to dialogue with trust, courage, and foresightedness, so that China and the Apostolic See “will be able to act more positively for the orderly and harmonious growth of the Catholic community in China.”
Francis concluded his message by invoking the maternal protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, praying that she would “present to the Lord of history the trials and tribulations, the petitions and the hopes” of all who pray to her; and that she would be a refuge for all who “weep amid their trials.”
“Mary, Help of Christians, for China we implore days of blessing and of peace."