Pope in bid to improve relations with China
Pope Francis is leading a determined push to fundamentally alter the relationship between the Vatican and China, which for decades has been infused with mutual suspicion and acrimony.
Interviews with some two dozen Catholic officials and clergy in Hong Kong, Italy and mainland China, as well as sources with ties to the leadership in Beijing, reveal details of an agreement that would fall short of full diplomatic ties but would address key issues at the heart of the bitter divide between the Vatican and Beijing.
A working group with members from both sides was set up in April and is discussing how to resolve a core disagreement over who has the authority to select and ordain bishops in China, several of the sources said.
The group is also trying to settle a dispute over eight bishops who were appointed by Beijing but did not get papal approval - an act of defiance in the eyes of the Vatican.
In what would be a dramatic breakthrough, the pope is preparing to pardon the eight, possibly as early as this summer, paving the way to further detente, say Catholic sources with knowledge of the deliberations.
A signal of Francis' deep desire for rapprochement with China came last year in the form of a behind-the-scenes effort by the Vatican to engineer the first-ever meeting between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
Aides to the pope tried to arrange a meeting when both Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping were in New York in late September to address the United Nations General Assembly.
The meeting didn't happen. But the overture didn't go unnoticed in Beijing.
While the two sides have said they are discussing the issue of the bishops, Catholic sources gave the most detailed account yet of the negotiations and the secret steps the Vatican has taken to pave the way to a deal.
The current talks come more than six decades after victorious Communist Party leaders, having vanquished the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, expelled Vatican envoy Antonio Riberi from Beijing in 1951 as they banished missionaries and began a crackdown on organised religion.
The Vatican remains the only Western state that does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing, maintaining instead formal relations with the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.