In a letter to the Chinese faithful, Francis also called for greater dialogue between local priests and government authorities to ensure that ordinary church activities can be carried out, while encouraging the opening of "a new chapter" in official bilateral cooperation.
China's estimated 12 million Catholics are split between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is outside the pope's authority, and an underground church loyal to the pope. Underground priests and parishioners are frequently detained and harassed.
The letter appeared aimed at acknowledging the deep reservations of some underground faithful, for whom the deal represents a sell-out to the Communist government and betrayal of their decades of loyalty to the pope.
Francis acknowledged these Chinese "sense themselves somehow abandoned" and expressed his "sincere admiration" for their fidelity over the years. But he asked them to trust him. The aim, he said, is to "initiate an unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation."
The letter follows the deal signed Saturday governing the naming of bishops in China, an issue that has split the church and vexed relations for decades. The agreement regularizes the status of seven bishops who had been appointed by Beijing over the years without papal consent, and sets out a process of dialogue going forward to name new ones. Francis says he, not Beijing, ultimately will name new bishops.
While the deal addressed a crucial aspect of church governance in China, it didn't address more pastoral issues of unifying split communities, which the letter published Wednesday aims to do. "The Catholic community in China is called to be united, so as to overcome the divisions of the past that have caused, and continue to cause, great suffering in the hearts of many pastors and faithful," Francis wrote. "All Christians, none excluded, must now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion."
Francis — and before him Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II — had tried to unite the two communities, including a letter Benedict penned to the Chinese faithful in 2007. Years of negotiations kicked into high gear over a year ago, culminating in the deal signed Saturday.
Unlike Benedict's 2007 letter, which labeled the Patriotic Association "incompatible" with Catholic doctrine and took a hard line in asserting the exclusive right of the pope to name bishops, Francis' tone was far more conciliatory and focused on moving past previous differences. He didn't even name the Patriotic Association or insist on his right to name bishops.
He has told reporters, however, that after a period of dialogue he would ultimately name new leaders of the church. The letter provided some detail of the process involved, which includes ordinary priests and lay faithful taking part in the nomination process. That lay participation is unknown in the West, where such nominations are put to the Vatican for consideration by the local hierarchy and the local Vatican ambassador.
Francis urged the Chinese faithful "to join in seeking good candidates" who are not mere functionaries but are "authentic shepherds ... committed to working generously in the service of God's people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable."
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Francis acknowledged that both sides lost something in the talks, and said members of the underground Chinese church "will suffer" as a result of the deal, the text of which has not been released.
But he took full responsibility for it, and said he had already received messages attesting to the "martyr-like faith" of Chinese Catholics and their willingness to accept whatever was decided. He urged prayers "for the suffering of those who don't understand, or who have so many years behind them of living clandestinely."
It was a reference to the underground faithful who endured decades of persecution for refusing to join the Patriotic Association and staying loyal to the Holy See. Their cause has long been championed by Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has called Francis' deal a sell-out of the church to China's Communist rulers.
The issue of bishop nominations had been the main stumbling block to restoring diplomatic relations that were severed nearly seven decades ago when the Chinese communists came to power. The Holy See insisted on the pope's right to name bishops to preserve the apostolic succession that dates to Jesus' original apostles. China considered the Vatican's insistence as an infringement on its sovereignty.