Could Pope Francis go to China?

Vatican City

When Pope Francis visits South Korea Aug. 14-18, he will take part in Asian Youth Day with delegates from some 30 countries, preside over the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs and meet with President Park Geun-hye.

South Korea is one of Asia's major economies, with a small but growing Catholic church. It is also half of a divided peninsula, where nuclear-armed communist North Korea presents an ongoing threat. All of these factors promise to make the pope's visit important and newsworthy.

Now informed observers are speculating that the pope might add another destination to his first Asian trip -- one that would mark the voyage as truly historic.

Adding a stopover in the People's Republic of China -- with which the Vatican has not had diplomatic relations for more than 60 years -- would represent an extraordinary variation in the careful planning typical of papal travel. But Pope Francis has proven willing to improvise audaciously in the most diplomatically sensitive situations, as when he stopped to pray at the Israeli-built security barrier in the West Bank during his late-May visit to the Holy Land.

Spending a mere half-day in Beijing, which sits on the flight path from Seoul to Rome, the pope could easily visit the city's Catholic cathedral and the nearby tomb of his Jesuit confrere Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century missionary to China whose cause for sainthood was reopened in 2010.

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To be sure, such a visit remains a long shot, either this summer or at any point in the foreseeable future. Yet Pope Francis' pontificate has already offered signs of hope for better relations with China.

One such sign was the pope's choice of secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

During his time as the Vatican's undersecretary for relations with states, from 2002 to 2009, the future cardinal played a key role in improving relations with Beijing. In that period, the two sides reached a tacit understanding on the crucial question of the ordination of Chinese bishops, agreeing that new ordinations would require approval by both the Vatican and the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association.

That progress halted in 2010, when the government arranged for the ordination of a bishop without the pope's approval, and reportedly coerced several other bishops to attend the ceremony. In 2012, the government placed another bishop under house arrest and rescinded his episcopal appointment after he announced at his ordination Mass that he would not take part in the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis told an Italian interviewer in March 2014 that "there are some relations" with China, and revealed that he and President Xi Jinping had exchanged congratulatory messages with each other following their almost-simultaneous elections the previous March.

Pope Francis is a figure of widespread interest in China, and his speeches and diplomatic initiatives -- such as his campaign to end the civil war in Syria and his June 8 prayer for peace with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents -- have received favorable coverage in state-controlled media there.

According to Francesco Sisci, an Italian academic and journalist now based in Beijing, when Pope Francis said in May that Chinese Catholics should be a "leaven of harmonious coexistence among their fellow citizens," some Chinese commentators actually interpreted his words as a reference to the "socialist harmonious society," a concept promoted under former Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

A photo opportunity with the colossally popular pope would be an undoubted coup for Xi and his government in terms of their international reputation for respect of religious freedom and other human rights.

In early June, the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post, citing unnamed sources "close to" the Holy See and the church in Hong Kong, reported that Vatican and Chinese officials might meet before the end of the year.

Yet moves toward rapprochement could be blocked at any time. Beijing's policies toward the Catholic Church have typically reflected a complex set of influences, including its dealings with other religious communities, such as China's far more numerous Protestants and the Tibetan Buddhist followers of the Dalai Lama.

In terms of such political dynamics, there is still a lot of time left before Pope Francis boards his plane to Seoul.

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July 14-27, 2017