Vatican gives China expert key overseas mission
In a move seen as a bid to rekindle ties with Beijing, this week the Vatican appointed China expert Archbishop Fernando Filoni head of the body overseeing the church's development in more than 100 countries.
Filoni's appointment as pro-prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples on Tuesday makes him the key person overseeing missionary work in countries where Catholicism is being developed.
Filoni spent nine years in Hong Kong as an unofficial envoy for the Vatican between 1992 and 2001. He was credited as acting as a link between the Holy See and both the underground and state-sanctioned churches on the mainland.
His new role includes supervising the appointment of bishops, which has been a key obstacle to establishing diplomatic relations with China.
The Vatican has had no diplomatic representative in Beijing since 1951, nor has Beijing sent any ambassador to the Holy See.
Moves towards establishing those ties froze in November last year following the ordination of Joseph Guo Jincai as bishop of the Chengde diocese in Hebei without the Vatican's approval.
A month later Joseph Ma Yinglin - who was also ordained without approval - became president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops' Conference, a body the Vatican does not recognise.
'His expertise on China church affairs is probably the best in the Vatican. It is a very strong point for him,' Anthony Lam Sui-ki, executive secretary at the diocese-founded Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong said.
Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, vicar general of the diocese in Hong Kong, said: 'To appoint a person that knows China better, to have someone who can help to enhance the dialogue, I think this is something the Holy Father wants to do.'
Referring also to the appointment of Hong Kong-born Savio Hon Tai-fai last December as Filoni's deputy, Yeung said: 'Both of their appointments show the Holy Father is very concerned about the normalisation of the diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and Beijing.'
Anthony Liu Bainian, honorary president of the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Chinese Catholic Bishops' Conference, refused to say whether Filoni's background was beneficial to Sino-Vatican ties.
'I can only say I hope he can make some contributions to the relationship between the two sides,' he said.
The main barrier to full diplomatic relations remains the ordination of bishops. The pope issued a letter seeking reconciliation with the mainland in 2007, saying it would no longer ordain bishops from underground churches. Between 2007 and November 2010 there was regular dialogue and Beijing did not ordain any bishops without Vatican consent.
Guo's appointment was described in a recent message to mainland Catholics released by the Holy See as a 'sad episode' where 'there remains a grave wound, perpetrated on the ecclesial body'.
Lam said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had made it clear it was eager to open dialogue with the Vatican, despite the ordination. 'Nobody knows exactly why [Beijing went ahead with the ordination],' he said.
But Liu - the most powerful Catholic on the mainland - said that the Vatican was informed of Guo's appointment three years ago, but it did not say whether it agreed with the mainland church's decision.
'It was only after the ordination the problem was raised,' he said. 'It is the politically-motivated action by the Vatican that is to be blamed.'
A source close to the Vatican said that relations between the parties were very sensitive. 'If we start a dialogue again, if we can reach an agreement and sign it, it will help our church and it will help the Chinese government,' the source said.
Additional reporting by Teddy Ng