A senior official in China's state-sanctioned Catholic Church said in comments published Tuesday that he would like Pope Benedict XVI to visit China and celebrate Mass.
Benedict did not dismiss the possibility but said the issue was "complicated."
Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, made the comments in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica in which he praised Benedict's recent letter to China's Catholics as "positive."
"I strongly hope to be able to see the pope one day here in Beijing to celebrate Mass for us Chinese," Liu was quoted as saying.
He said he wanted, through the interview, to send the pope a special greeting. "Let him know that we pray for him always and may the Lord give us the grace to welcome him here among us."
Benedict was asked about the comments as he left a church in Auronzo di Cadore, in northern Italy, where he was meeting with clergy from the region.
"I can't speak at this time," Benedict said, according to the ANSA and Apcom news agencies. "It's a bit complicated."
China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in the government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops.
Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations that are not registered with the authorities.
Benedict has been trying to reconcile the divisions, and sent the letter to all Catholics in China on June 30 in a bid to unite them. In it, he praised the underground faithful but urged them to reconcile with followers in the official church.
Liu praised Benedict's letter, saying there was a "big positive difference" compared with the Vatican's previous positions.
"Every opposition to socialism disappeared. We weren't accused of schism. It marked the first time that, according to the pope, Chinese people could feel it was possible to be Catholic and love their own country."
He expressed optimism that a solution could be found to the contentious issue of appointing bishops.
"The problem can be resolved. It will be resolved, I hope soon," he was quoted as saying.
At the same time, however, Liu insisted that religion could never be used to interfere in China's internal affairs.
"Beijing will never accept what the church did in Poland," he said, referring to Pope John Paul II's support for the Solidarity movement that helped topple communism in his homeland.
He explained Beijing's relationship with the Vatican by recalling China's bitter experience with foreign colonizers and missionaries, but stressed that Chinese Catholics always recognized the sole authority of the pope as far as religion was concerned.
"The Holy See is the only representative of Jesus on earth, and as Catholics we must follow it," he said. "What we must affirm is our political and economic independence; otherwise we remain a colonial church."
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