Talking with journalists, the Pope claimed he was personally responsible for the agreement with China and that he will have the last word in the choice of bishops.
On September 25, in the flight bringing him back to Roma from Estonia, Pope Francis answered a question about China. The interview helps understanding the letter Francis wrote to Chinese and world Catholics, urging reconciliation and cooperation after the agreement.
A journalist asked, “Three days ago an agreement was signed between the Vatican and China. Can you give us any additional information on its content? Why do some Catholics and in particular Cardinal Joseph Zen accuse you of having sold out the Church to the Chinese government?”
Pope Francis gave a detailed answer, worth quoting in full:
“This is a process that has lasted for years, a dialogue between the Vatican commission and the Chinese commission, to arrange the nomination of bishops. The Vatican team has worked hard, I would like to mention a few names: Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, who—with patience—has been in dialogue for years and years. Then, Gianfranco Rota Graziosi, a humble 72-year-old curial who wanted to become a priest of a parish and yet he remained in the Curia to help in this process. And then the Secretary of State [Cardinal Parolin], who is a very devoted man, but has a special devotion for the magnifying glass: he studies all the documents: semicolon, comma, hints. This gives me a great confidence. This team with these qualities has moved forward. You know that when a peace agreement is made, both sides lose something. That is the law: both sides. We went two steps forward, one step back… two steps forward and one step back. Then, months without talking to each other. It is God’s time that resembles Chinese time. Slowly, its Chinese wisdom. The bishops who were in difficulty were studied case by case. Each of their files landed on my desk. I was responsible for signing. Then about the agreement: the drafts returned to my desk, I gave my ideas, they were discussed and they went forward. I think of the resistance, of the Catholics who have suffered: it’s true, they will suffer. There is always suffering in an agreement. But their faith is great. They write to me, they send messages to say that what the Holy See, what Peter says, is what Jesus says. The martyr faith of these people today goes on. They are great. I signed the agreement, I signed the plenipotentiary letters. I am the person in charge, the others have worked for more than ten years. This was no improvisation, it’s a true journey. A simple anecdote and a historical fact: when that famous communiqué of a former apostolic nuncio [Mgr Viganò, the former nuncio to the US who attacked Pope Francis] came out, the episcopates worldwide wrote to me telling me that they felt close and prayed for me. Chinese faithful have written to me and the letter was signed by the bishop of the ‘traditional Catholic’ so to speak, Church, and the bishop of the ‘patriotic’ Church, both together and with both communities of faithful. For me, it was a sign from God.
Then let’s not forget that in Latin America for 350 years it was the kings of Portugal and Spain who appointed the bishops. Let’s not forget the case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Other eras, thank God, they won’t come back. What is there, is a dialogue on potential candidates, but Rome nominates, the Pope nominates, that’s clear. And we pray for the sufferings of some who don’t understand or who have many years of ‘underground life’ behind them.”
Three points are worth noting here. First, the Pope claims personal responsibility for the agreement. He was not “misled” by clever diplomats. Second, he does not reveal the content of the agreement, whose text is secret, but insists he will have the last word in appointing the bishops in China. Third, he answers critics that agreements where the Holy See negotiates the appointments of the bishops with secular governments are not “unprecedented” but in fact find several historical precedents.