Hours after the conclave of March 2013 ended, another ritual ballot took place 5,000 miles away in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. As Francis prepared for his first full day as Pope, Xi Jinping was elected president of China by 2,952 votes to one.
While the differences between the two men are obvious, there are striking parallels. Both men come from relatively humble backgrounds. Both trained as chemists. Both are men of the people: Francis travelled by tram in Buenos Aires and Xi toiled for seven years in a remote village as a young man. Both are now in charge of ancient institutions that comprise more than a billion souls. Francis was elected, in part, to reform the Roman Curia. In his first speech, Xi said that “corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy must be addressed with great efforts”.
One of Francis’s unfulfilled dreams is to become the first pope to travel to China. He mentioned this aspiration again last Saturday on his flight home from Bangladesh. He described his sensations as he became the first pontiff to fly through Chinese airspace in August 2014 (John Paul II had always flown around it). “When they told me that we were flying over Chinese territory, I wanted to say something: I would so much like to visit China,” he recalled.
Francis has made an unprecedented series of overtures to the Chinese government since his election. He has given interviews in which he lavishly praised China’s history. He has encouraged the Vatican Museums to send works to the Forbidden City. He has tacitly given Chinese doctors a platform at the Vatican to declare (somewhat implausibly) that China no longer harvests prisoners’ organs. He has toned down criticism of China’s treatment of Catholics: in June, the Holy See condemned the arrest of a bishop in Wenzhou only after the German ambassador spoke out first.
How has China responded to this campaign? With its characteristic ambivalence. Beijing has welcomed talks over the appointment of bishops. At the same time, the Communist Party recently reminded its 90 million members that they are required to be atheists. Officials in eastern Jiangxi Province have offered money to poor Catholic families if they replace religious images with posters of Xi. Chinese tour operators have been forbidden to organise group visits to the Vatican.
It is essential that the Holy See engages China. The welfare of an estimated nine million Catholics depends on it. But so far the Vatican seems to have conceded much but gained little. “Patience is needed,” Pope Francis said last weekend. “But the doors of the heart are open. And I believe that a trip to China will do well.” A pope may indeed visit China this century. But the chances are that it will not be Francis – or even his successor.
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