Pope Francis ‘initiated talks’ on bishops deal between Chinese and Vatican foreign ministers

Stuart Lau

A historic meeting between the foreign ministers of China and the Vatican in Munich last week was initiated and approved by Pope Francis, according to two sources familiar with the arrangements.

The Pope was “eager” to use the talks to explore “renewal or formalisation” of a provisional deal reached in 2018 to allow the Vatican to appoint bishops pre-approved by Beijing, one of the sources said. The agreement is said to be expiring in August.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, met Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is also a state councillor, on Friday in a rare high-level meeting between the two sides. But Wang did not meet Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s top diplomat.

The second source said the Pope was “delighted” with the meeting, which took place at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, where dozens of world leaders had gathered for the Munich Security Conference.

The sources could not confirm whether either side had proposed a further meeting between President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis. The Pope, who became the first Latin American pontiff in 2013, has shown more willingness to engage with China’s ruling Communist Party than most of his predecessors, who have condemned Beijing for violating religious freedom.

Archibishop Paul Gallagher and Wang Yi meet for talks on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Friday. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951, and the Vatican is the only European sovereign state to formally recognise Taipei instead of Beijing.

During the meeting, both sides highlighted the Vatican’s support for China as it grapples with a deadly coronavirus outbreak. But the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops was top of the agenda for the Vatican, according to one of the diplomatic sources familiar with the talks.

“The Vatican was trying to make sure China would continue to adhere to the deal,” the source said.

Pope Francis gives approval for first Chinese bishop to be consecrated after landmark deal

The text of the agreement, signed between the Vatican and China’s foreign ministry, was never made public, drawing fire from critics such as retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Zi-kiun, who has accused the Vatican of “selling out”.

There are some 12 million Catholics in China, divided between the state-sanctioned church and a network of underground churches loyal to the Vatican.

Wang said during the meeting that the agreement was “of great importance”, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua. “[It] is conducive to promoting the well-being of Catholics and the Chinese people as well as world peace,” the foreign minister said.

Catholics in China are split between the state-sanctioned church and the unofficial churches faithful to the Vatican. Photo: EPA-EFE

A Vatican statement also said the two sides had discussed the deal between Rome and Beijing on the appointment of bishops, a matter that had long been contentious.

It said they had agreed to continue “institutional, bilateral dialogue” aimed at benefiting both the Catholic Church and the Chinese people.

Wang also highlighted the significance of his meeting with Gallagher. Noting that Pope Francis had “publicly expressed his love and blessing for China on various occasions”, Wang said that Friday “marked the first meeting between the foreign ministers of China and the Vatican”, according to Xinhua.

Wang gave a keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, but Chinese state media did not release details of his previous day’s meeting with Gallagher until hours after the address.

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