China and the Vatican are reportedly ready to sign a breakthrough deal on the appointment of bishops in a few months, according to a senior Vatican source.
The agreement would reportedly involve two bishops stepping aside to make way for two bishops selected by the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The new bishops would have to recognize the authority of Pope Francis and ask his forgiveness for accepting ordination without papal approval.
Reuters reported that a Vatican delegation traveled to China last December to make an offer relating to two Vatican-recognized bishops.
One of the bishops would have to retire and make way for a government-backed bishop, while another would have to become an auxiliary, or assistant, to one who had been appointed by the government.
The source claimed that both Vatican-backed bishops had acknowledged that they are making sacrifices for the greater good of the Church.
One of the Vatican-backed bishops, Peter Zhuang, had recently confirmed that he was asked to retire to make way for a bishop who was excommunicated by the Vatican after being illicitly ordained.
Under the agreement, seven government-backed bishops would be made legitimate after seeking a papal pardon, but this still has to be formalized.
In a phone call with UCA News, Zhuang said that he went to Beijing "in December, where I met with four Vatican officials," but declined to provide more details. Those close to Zhuang, who is not known for his public display of emotions, had said that he was deeply and visibly upset by the ordeal.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, had accused the Vatican of "selling out" millions of Catholics in China, who did not worship at the Party controlled version of the church.
In late January, Zen announced that he had personally met with Francis to voice out his opposition to the plan and to hand the pontiff a letter from one of the bishops involved.
"So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months," Zen reportedly said in a Facebook post.
In a sharply worded statement, the Vatican said that it was regrettable that some people in the Church were "fostering confusion and controversy."
Zen had suggested that Vatican diplomats involved in the negotiations are keeping the pontiff in the dark or were even going against his wishes. But the Vatican stressed that there was no "difference of thought and action" between the pope and his aides, and the source stated that the pope had been fully briefed before the delegation left for Beijing in December and after it returned.