Although it is normal practice for the Pope to send telegrams while flying over different nations, his telegrams to and from China have many talking.
En route back to Rome Monday at the end his apostolic visit to Korea this week, the Holy Father sent his second telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.
It read: “Your Excellency Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, Returning to Rome after my visit to Korea, I wish to renew to your Excellency and your fellow citizens the assurance of my best wishes, as I invoke divine blessings upon your land.”
Before the Pope embarked on his third international pilgrimage Thursday, his flying over China marked the first time China allowed a Pope to fly through its airspace.
On his outbound flight, the Pope sent the Chinese president the following message: “I extend my best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”
Pope John Paul II, when flying to East Asia, was forced to take long detours due to poor relations with China. When the Vatican asked China’s permission to fly over in 1989, they refused, causing the Pope to fly over the Soviet Union, where he sent Mikhail Gorbachev a telegram.
Speaking to Asian bishops on Sunday, the Pope hinted that improving relations with China is a priority of his pontificate. In a spirit of openness to others, he said he “earnestly” hoped that “those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all.”
Deviating from his text, he added: “I’m not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue. These Christians aren’t coming as conquerors, they aren’t trying to take away our identity.” He said the important thing was to “walk together.”
Since the Communist Party took power in China in 1949, relations between the Vatican and the Asian nation have been poor and recently hit all time lows as the Chinese authorities seek to maintain control over the nation’s Catholics.
China has a large “underground” Church loyal to Rome whose members risk being detained by the government if caught taking part in ceremonies or consecrating bishops.
During the Pope’s visit to South Korea, dozens of Chinese were prevented from attending Asian Youth Day due to “a complicated situation inside China,” according to a spokesman for a committee organising the papal visit.
However, some 300 young Catholics from mainland China attended the Mass that Pope Francis celebrated at the Haemi Castle shrine by finding ways around the bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the Chinese authorities.
Though tarnished relations between Beijing and the Holy See have deep roots, China’s crackdowns on religion continue drawing critics worldwide.
Hopes for better relations have been dashed recently as the Chinese government has continued to appoint its own illegitimate bishops, abducted a Catholic bishop, and demolished Catholic buildings because they violate government regulations with overly conspicuous crosses.
Beijing continues to resent the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan and has in the past called on the Holy See to cut ties if it wishes to establish formal links with the People’s Republic.
Although relations are far from being resolved, some note progress, which became apparent when the Chinese president sent Francis a congratulatory note when elected Pope.
Some Chinese state-run media have applauded the Pope’s flyovers. The Global Times, an often-nationalistic Chinese newspaper, called it a “positive development in China-Vatican relations,” but warned that establishing formal relations may still be a way off.