Pope Francis made his strongest gesture yet to reach out to China yesterday, saying he wants to improve relations and insisting that the Catholic Church is not coming in as a "conqueror" but is rather a partner in dialogue.
The pope outlined his priorities for the Catholic Church in Asia during a meeting of about 80 of the region's bishops, urging them to engage with people of different cultures empathetically.
"In this spirit of openness to others, I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all," he said.
Then deviating from his text, he added: "I'm not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue. These Christians aren't coming as conquerors, they aren't trying to take away our identity." He said the important thing was to "walk together".
The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said the pope's remarks were "obviously a sign of goodwill for dialogue" with China as well as the other countries in Asia with which the Vatican did not have relations: North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Bhutan and Brunei.
"This offer of the pope for dialogue is to all these lands and not just one," Lombardi said.
He acknowledged that the pope had refrained from making any outwardly political statement about China, which counts some 12 million Catholics, but that the speech was a clear affirmation of a desire for dialogue.
It was also a message to the region's bishops that they can sow the seeds for dialogue through charitable works and educational services even before official diplomatic relations are established.
Vatican-China ties have already broken new ground on the pope's first Asian trip, with Beijing agreeing to let his Alitalia charter fly through its airspace. When Pope John Paul II came to South Korea in 1989, Beijing refused to let him fly overhead.
Lombardi said the Vatican was not interested in questions of political sovereignty. "Authorities have not to fear the Holy See as a power that comes to exercise its foreign powers in the land, but is a religious authority that is of another order than the political and civil authorities," he said.
There was no immediate response from Beijing. But last week, after the pope sent greetings, the Foreign Ministry's Hua Chunying told the China Daily that "we have noticed the remarks of Pope Francis".
"China has always been sincere in improving relations with the Vatican and has been making positive efforts for that," she said.