The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association should continue building an independent mainland church while 'changing with the times' to contribute more to the nation, Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu said yesterday. Mr Hui's call came as the state-backed body, which controls the Catholic Church on the mainland, celebrated its 50th anniversary. It is timely also as Sino-Vatican relations appear to be improving following Pope Benedict's letter to Beijing authorities. Coupled with the open invitation made by Liu Bainian , a vice-chairman of the association, for the Pope to visit China, analysts believe Beijing is seeking to prod the Vatican to take a step towards furthering negotiations on the resumption of diplomatic ties. In a speech given to a gathering of more than 40 bishops and scores of the clergy yesterday in Beijing, Mr Hui was quoted by Xinhua as saying the creation and work of the association was an 'important landmark' for an independent Catholic Church on the mainland. 'The new century, with its new tasks in the new stage, has new demands for the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. There is hope that the association will inherit the outstanding tradition of being patriotic and loving the church, remember its holy mission, and strengthen its work with a spirit that changes with the times,' he said. Mr Hui urged the association to 'hold fast to the principles of independence, autonomy and self-management' and serve as a bridge to lead Catholics to building a socialist nation. The event was one of the few religious occasions attended by top leaders, including Jia Qinglin , chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and Liu Yandong , head of the Communist Party's United Front Work Department. Mr Hui's remark was in sharp contrast to the Pope's letter last month in which he stressed that the Patriotic Association was 'incompatible' with Catholic teachings because it overrode the authority of bishops. Although Beijing has repeatedly stressed the principle of a mainland church independent of Rome since the association's establishment in 1957, Mr Hui's repetition of the stance was seen as a rebuttal of the Pope's insistence that church teachings require local churches to maintain ties to the Holy See. But in a move that complicates the situation, Mr Liu offered an open invitation to the Pope to visit the mainland in an interview with an Italian newspaper. 'We have always said that we recognise the sole authority of the Pope on religious matters,' Mr Liu was quoted as saying. 'I hope with all of my strength to be able to see the Pope in Beijing someday, to celebrate Mass for us Chinese.' It was the first time the Patriotic Association said the Pope could realise his expressed wish to visit the country. Last year, former Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo said the Pope would be able to visit the mainland if there was an official invitation. Last night, Mr Liu would not say whether his request amounted to an official invitation. Government sources said Mr Liu's remarks were 'nothing extraordinary' because mainland Catholics respected the Pope. The Pope, who also expressed his wish to step up a constructive dialogue with Beijing in his letter, which called for reconciliation between the state-approved and 'underground' Catholic communities, would not be drawn on the offer. 'I can't talk about that now. It's a bit complicated,' the Pope told the media on Tuesday during his vacation in northern Italy. Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, a church expert in Macau, said Mr Liu appeared to have been told by the government to offer the invitation.