By: NICOLE WINFIELD – Associated Press
VATICAN CITY — Hong Kong’s bishop hailed the recent appointments of Chinese bishops approved by the Vatican as a breakthrough, saying Friday that Beijing should realize it is losing its tight control over Roman Catholics in China.
Bishop Joseph Zen, a fierce critic of Beijing, also said he believed progress was being made in relations between the Vatican and China.
Zen was in Rome to attend the Synod of Bishops, the Oct. 2-23 meeting of the world’s bishops. During the meeting, he told fellow clergymen the "overwhelming majority" of Chinese bishops appointed by the government had now been legitimized by Rome.
The issue of appointing bishops has been a major obstacle in relations between the Vatican and China.
Zen was asked Friday, on the sidelines of a book presentation on the history of the Catholic Church in China, how the process of naming bishops now works.
"As far as I know, first comes the appointment by the pope, then the local bishop tries to have this candidate admitted, and then the government has the choice to ordain the bishop. These are the facts," he said.
The practice has been in place for some time but has not been publicized, he said.
Before the two most recent bishop appointments, the communist government "tried to threaten them not to say things in public." But now it refrains from doing that, he said, calling it a "breakthrough."
China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops.
Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI has been seeking to re-establish diplomatic relations with China and unify the two churches to bring China’s estimated 12 million Catholics under Rome’s wing.
Zen was asked Friday what the next steps were for relations to progress.
"I hope the government draws conclusions on the facts," he said. "It’s futile to be rigid on their position, because they must see that they are losing control."
Zen said he was optimistic that relations between the Vatican and China would improve.
"The Holy See is anxious to start a dialogue, but unfortunately, Beijing didn’t show any interest," he said. "But now it seems that something is going to move."