Pope insists Vatican-China relations are on track but says more work is needed

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ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis insisted Monday that the Vatican's relations with China were going well but said work must still be done to show Beijing that the Catholic Church isn’t beholden to a foreign power.

Francis spoke about the Holy See’s dealings with China during a press conference en route home from Mongolia, where Beijing and its crackdown on religious minorities overshadowed an otherwise historic first papal visit to the majority Buddhist nation.

Francis sent a telegram of greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping as his aircraft flew through China's airspace coming and going to Mongolia. The pontiff also gave a special shout-out to the Chinese people at the end of his main Mass in Ulaanbaatar. He brought up to the altar the current and retired bishops of Hong Kong to demonstrate his “warm” affection for the Chinese people.

But relations remain strained, particularly over a 5-year-old agreement on nominating Catholic bishops. The 2018 accord aimed to unite China’s estimated 12 million Catholics, who have been divided between an official church and an underground church loyal to Rome. The latter emerged when the Communists came to power and diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China ruptured.

On Monday in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was asked about the pope’s Sunday greeting to the Chinese people. “We have seen relevant reports, and my colleagues have introduced China’s position earlier. China has always taken a positive attitude towards improving relations with the Vatican and has maintained contact and communication with the Vatican.”

The terms of the 2018 deal were never released. But Beijing has made a handful of unilateral bishop appointments without papal consent, an apparent violation of the accord. The Vatican gave in and recognized the appointments after the fact.

Francis insisted that relations were “very respectful” and said he retained “great admiration for the Chinese people.”

“I think there’s more work to be done on the religious aspect to understand ourselves better, so the Chinese citizens don’t think that the church doesn’t accept their culture or values, or that the church depends on another foreign power,” he said. “So the relations are like this, underway.”

Francis also was asked about Russia and a recent comment extolling Russia’s imperial past that sparked the ire of Ukraine’s Catholics. During Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Francis has tried to maintain a balancing act with Russia and Ukraine in line with the Vatican’s tradition of diplomatic neutrality. He has expressed frequent solidarity with the “martyred” Ukrainian people but refrained from calling out the Kremlin or Russian President Vladimir Putin for condemnation.

In his recent comments, Francis told a gathering of Russian Catholic youths in St. Petersburg via video conference that they must remember their history and the inheritance of the “great Russia,” citing in particular imperial rulers Charles the Great and Catherine II.

Ukraine’s Catholic archbishop said such historical references recalled the worst of Russia’s bloody imperial past and encouraged Moscow's current aggression in Ukraine.

Francis acknowledged his reference to the imperial leaders was “perhaps not happy.” But he said he cited them because he learned about them in school and wanted to make a point that he makes frequently: that young people should embrace their heritage and culture.

“This inheritance of ‘Great Russia,’ Russian culture is of a beauty and profoundness that is great,” Francis said Monday.

Francis’ comments were also a reflection of his longstanding admiration for Russian culture. He frequently cites Dostoevsky as one of his favorite authors. During the flight to Mongolia, he recommended that journalists listen to the 19th century Georgian-Russian composer Alexander Borodin and his “Steppes of Central Asia” to better understand and appreciate the vastness of the region.

The 86-year-old Francis appeared to hold up well during the four-day visit to Ulaanbaatar, which required an overnight flight and a whole day of rest upon arrival. But he suggested such trips were taking a toll.

“To tell you the truth, for me doing a trip now, it’s not at easy as it was at the beginning,” he said. “There are limitations to walking that limit it. We’ll see.”

Francis, who has used a wheelchair for over a year because of strained knee ligaments, has one more trip confirmed this year, an overnight visit to Marseille, France, at the end of the month. He said there may be a visit to another “small European country,” but was noncommittal about future travel.

He said that Vietnam, which recently agreed to a new level of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, warranted a papal visit.

“If I don’t go, surely John XXIV will,” he said chuckling, referring to a future pope who might be named for the progressive, Vatican II-era pontiff, John XXIII.

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