Cardinal John Tong Hon told followers yesterday he spoke with the newly appointed Pope Francis about the plight of Chinese Catholics and pledged that Hong Kong would always serve as a bridge between the Vatican and Catholics on the mainland.
Cardinal Tong was in Rome last month, where he made history as the first Hong Kong bishop to vote for a pope.
Pope Francis, 76, was elected on March 13 to replace former pope Benedict, who stunned the world when he announced his sudden resignation, citing old age as his reason for leaving.
During an evening mass celebrating the new pope's inauguration yesterday, Tong shared an account of his personal contact with the man.
This included a conversation the bishop and the pope had in an elevator in Rome.
"He said that a statue standing in his room reminded him of the Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier who arrived in China more than 460 years ago. He told me he never forgets to pray for Chinese Catholics," Tong said.
Upon bidding farewell to the pope to return to Hong Kong, the bishop thanked him for his care and prayers. "There, [the pope] kissed my hand to show his devotion to the Church in China and said in Italian … 'the Church in China is in my heart.'"
Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 after the latter recognised the nationalist government in Taiwan.
The Vatican is now the only European state that maintains diplomatic ties with Taipei instead of Beijing.
Beijing-Vatican relations became especially strained in recent years after the mainland appointed bishops without papal approval. Cardinal Tong said yesterday that the Church in Hong Kong would "always happily serve as a bridge" between Catholics in China and the Vatican.