A delegation including representatives of the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples had talks with China during an 11-day trip to the country, the Vatican has confirmed for the first time.
According to reports, the Vatican delegation was made up of six people and that during their stay in China, the six delegates visited Beijing Cathedral – where they met Bishop Giuseppe Li Shan, who is recognised both by the Holy See and the Chinese Government – and the national Seminary.
The delegation met with Beijing officials between the 11 and 16 October to discuss a number of issues.
Rumours of the visit had been circulating for some time before the announcement by the Vatican on Thursday.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, told reporters that the Vatican is currently engaged in a dialogue with the Chinese authorities, a fact the Holy See vies as “very positive”.
"It is a part of a process aimed at the normalisation of relations. The sheer fact we are able to talk about it is significant," Cardinal Parolin said yesterday.
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Francis continues to express his desire to visit China during his time as Pope. In an interview with the French weekly current affairs magazine Paris Match this week he said: “China is in my heart. It is here. Always.”
And he told journalists on the return journey to Rome from his trip to the US last month, he said: "I'd really love to go to China. I love the Chinese people … I hope there is a possibility to have good relations with China.
"We have contacts, we talk. It's necessary to keep going," Pope Francis added.
Cardinal Parolin said that the Vatican is still optimistic over the chances of a papal visit to China.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin with Pope Francis at the synod last week (PA)
“We sincerely do hope so,” Cardinal Parolin said. “Everything we do, we do with a view to reaching an understanding and in order to establish normal relations with China and Beijing, as we have with the vast majority of countries in the world. Naturally, the fact we are engaged in dialogue is a positive thing.”
It has not been confirmed what Beijing and the Vatican discussed but Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a veteran sinologist at the Verbiest Institute of Leuven Catholic University in Belgium, told ucanews.com last week that the negotiations avoided some of the more contentious issues.
“In the corridors, the rumour spread that both sides had agreed to leave aside — for the time being — negotiations on the more thorny questions,” Father Heyndrickx wrote for ucanews.com.
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These issues include the release of imprisoned Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding, the status of eight excommunicated bishops, and the situation of Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai, who is confined at the Sheshan Seminary, according to the Missionhurst priest.
“Both parties did not seem ready to reach an agreement on these issues. They wished to look first for a consensus on the issue of episcopal appointments,” he said.
Shortly after the Vatican met with Beijing, a group of 25 Chinese bishops, priests, nuns and laypeople met with officials from China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs for five days in Guizhou province, according to ucanews.com.
The 25 Catholic leaders hold posts with the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the bishops' conference, which the Vatican does not recognise.
Meanwhile, China's Communist Party leaders have announced that they will the nation's one-child policy to allow couples to have two children in the future. The policy, implemented in 1979, banned couples from having more than one child in a bid to curb the population.
Since the policy was created China's population has grown from 972m people to 1.3 billion, but the population has aged with more than 1 in 5 Chinese people were of retirement age, and the workforce shrinking by 3.5 million people in 2012.
Additional reporting by ucanews.com