The reigning Bishop of Rome, Francis, is not your typical stodgy pontiff. In the five short years since his elevation as the first non-European head of the Roman Catholic Church since 741AD, he has displayed latitude of mind, courage of conviction, and deftness of diplomatic skill that is rare even among statesmen.

In August 2014, on entering Chinese airspace during a flight to Seoul, he broke six decades of silence between the Vatican and the head of China’s government by posting a message of goodwill to President Xi Jinping. Fittingly, on his birthday later that December, talks brokered by Francis were announced that would in time lead to the normalisation of ties between the Castro regime in Cuba and the Obama administration. The US-Cuba agreement was signed at the Vatican Secretariat of State. In February 2016, almost a thousand years after the rupture of the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, Pope Francis held a first meeting with his Russian Orthodox counterpart, Patriarch Kirill, in Havana. Francis’ millennia-spanning achievements are not one for the faint-hearted.

The Pope has a China dream, and burning Bibles won’t get in the way

Last week, Pope Francis registered his biggest diplomatic breakthrough yet: a landmark agreement with the government of the People’s Republic on the ordination of bishops in China. As per the agreement, Beijing – 67 years after snapping ties with the Vatican – will formally recognise the Pope’s jurisdiction as the head of the Catholic Church in China as well as the final authority in deciding on candidates for bishops in the country.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), the “self-run Church” hitherto established and controlled by the state, is to be downgraded and reoriented. In exchange, Pope Francis is expected to lift the excommunications of seven CCPA-installed bishops and formally recognise them as the leaders of their dioceses. More broadly, a mechanism that enables Beijing to provide its acceptable slate of candidates and the Vatican to have a final say in selection will now be formalised.

The fate of the three dozen or so Vatican-approved prelates, some of whom are in prison, who are not recognised by the CCPA is unclear at this time. The larger hope, though, is that as the splintering of the Catholic Church in China is reversed, the churches above and underground will in time be reconciled. Perhaps, a papal visit could be on the cards, too.

Both sides stand to gain handsomely from the compromise. For the Vatican, its pre-eminence on all matters ecclesiastical in the sovereign territorial space of China has been formally confirmed for the first time by the communist government in Beijing. For the Chinese Communist Party, its overarching and “guiding” role in harnessing religious belief to “help social harmony, modernisation [and a] healthy civilisation” – a key principle of its post-1980s religious policy – is vindicated without having to cede (though having to share) control on key decision-making to an entity that is housed beyond its sovereign territorial space.

Now, if the Vatican can pull off a deal with Beijing, what about the Dalai Lama? As plausible as it may look in theory, the ramifications for the Tibetan Buddhist leader are more profound. And the bottom line is equally stark: while Beijing could in theory share, it will never cede control over key Tibetan Buddhism-related personnel matters, notably the recognition of tulkus (or “living Buddhas”), as long as the Dalai Lama remains in exile. And given that the Dalai Lama is double-hatted in Tibet’s theocratic political structure as its secular leader over a defined territorial space (unlike the Pope), it is all the more likely that Beijing will refuse to share – let alone cede – practical control over key personnel matters until the Dalai Lama returns to Tibet.

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The failed effort in arriving at a consensual selection of a new Panchen Lama in the mid-1990s holds cautionary lessons. Following the untoward death of the revered lama in 1989, Beijing announced a search, selection and recognition process for his successor that initially ruled out a role for the Dalai Lama. Convinced otherwise by resident high lamas, Beijing reversed course in due time and accepted the involvement of the Dalai Lama in principle – if only to rubber-stamp its anointed choice.

By 1995, however, Beijing allegedly went so far as to turn a blind eye to a slate of candidates that its officially sanctioned search party (headed by a respected lama from Shigatse) had clandestinely submitted to the Dalai Lama for his prior approval. The process broke down in May that year, following the Dalai Lama’s fait accompli announcement of a young boy from northwest Tibet as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.

Beijing’s essential bottom line remained consistent throughout: while the prerogative of the Dalai Lama could be acknowledged and religious authority shared, akin to the China-Vatican accord, the overarching guiding role over religion in sovereign Tibetan territory rested ultimately with Beijing.

Four hundred years ago, the great Qing dynasty emperor, Kangxi – a patron of Jesuit cartography, astronomy and engineering – had insisted that Chinese rites of ancestor worship and public homage to Confucius, being civil rather than religious practices, should continue to be practised by his converted Christian subjects. Conflating Kangxi’s injunction with an intrusion on the paramountcy of church doctrine, Pope Clement XI forbade Catholic missionaries from following the Emperor’s orders.

The episode did not end well for the Church. No less than China’s communist rulers today, the Kangxi Emperor refused to cede Beijing’s overarching guiding role over religion – and that too to an entity housed beyond its sovereign territorial space.

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While one does not know if the Communist Party’s rule in Beijing will last as long the Qing dynasty’s multi-century reign, it is not about to disappear any time soon. The onus resides on the Dalai Lama’s shoulders to find a way to make peace and comity with Beijing – at least on matters that touch wholly and exclusively on Tibetan Buddhism. Dealing with the fraught issue of the limits of Tibet’s political and territorial autonomy is a different matter.

In March 2014, standing at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, President Xi Jinping extolled the profound impact of Buddhism in China. If a monotheist leader from distant Latin America carrying the Catholic Church’s dubious historical baggage can arrive at a principled compromise with the leadership in Beijing, surely the Dalai Lama could – or should – be able to do better. But for that, the Dalai Lama must heed the lessons of Francis – foremost, make one’s peace with and accommodate an antithetical political authority and, secondarily, persevere in good faith to realise this accommodation. Is his Excellency listening?

Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington