With the bishop of Wenzhou near death in early September, Chinese authorities told Father Lu Xiaozhou it was time for a trip.
They took the priest more than 300 kilometres away and kept him under constant surveillance.
Two men stayed with him at night and, if he wanted to go for a walk during the day, remained at his side.
Their job was to make sure he and three other local church leaders remained far from home when the bishop, Zhu Weifang, died.
One of those with Father Lu was Bishop Shao Zhumin, who church protocol designates the next top Catholic.
But while Bishop Zhu was a member of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – a government-approved body under government control – his successor belongs to the underground church, which does not accept Beijing’s religious authority.
The two bishops occupied the opposite sides of Catholicism’s long-standing division in China, and local authorities wanted to make sure Bishop Shao never reached the top office in Wenzhou, which is in the southeastern Zhejiang province and is sometimes called the country’s Jerusalem.
“[Authorities] hope the diocese of Wenzhou will continue to be led by the official church group,” Father Lu said in an interview.
It is one of the latest in a decades-long struggle between Beijing and the Vatican over who has the right to choose church leadership. It’s a battle that appears to be nearing a truce of sorts, amid hopes that a deal on the appointment of bishops is imminent.
Delegations from the Vatican and China have met for a flurry of negotiations over the last two years, including for rumoured talks in Rome in mid-November.
Though talks have taken place intermittently since the 1980s, the two sides now appear close to marking the historic end of an estrangement that dates to Mao Zedong’s 1951 expulsion of the papal nuncio from China.
“We expect they have reached an agreement,” said Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who leads the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute at Leuven Catholic University, which is dedicated to improving dialogue between the church and China.
Such a deal is expected to resolve how bishops are appointed in China, ending a standoff that has resulted in some bishops recognized by either the Vatican or Beijing – but not both – and left dozens of positions empty.
All that appears to remain is final sign-off from Pope Francis, who “from the very beginning, in 2013, sent friendly messages to to China making it clear that he was open to friendship, to new relations,” Father Heyndrickx said.
That may mean people like Father Lu will no longer be taken on forced holidays, one of the hallmarks of the strong-arm tactics, outright attacks and, occasionally, incarceration China has used to assert its primacy over the church inside its borders.
But the looming prospect of a bridge across China’s most prominent religious divide has itself fractured a Catholic community with deeply opposing views on the wisdom of rapprochement with the largest atheist regime on Earth.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a Hong Kong leader who was among the church’s most senior Chinese figures before his retirement, has warned the deal could legitimize the grasp of Beijing’s authoritarian government over Catholics.
“Can you imagine the Vatican going to negotiate with Hitler? With Stalin?” Cardinal Zen asked in an interview. “I don’t think so.”
The Vatican, he said, “is preparing to compromise, to surrender.” He believes Pope Francis developed sympathy for communism from watching those who suffered for their ideology in South America, where he grew up in Argentina.
But in China, he said, “they are not persecuted Communists, but they are Communist persecutors. They kill thousands and hundreds of thousands of people.”
Others, including Father Michael Kelly, the executive director of UCANews.com, see Cardinal Zen as an extremist himself, allied with Hong Kong’s democracy movement and blind to the millions of Chinese Catholics deprived of proper leadership. The Vatican, after all, has come to terms with Communist Vietnam. Why not the same with China?
Father Kelly dismissed the heated talk of a history-changing agreement with China as “hype.”
“The deal is nothing more than joint appointments,” said Father Kelly. “And the joint appointment of bishops is as old as the church.” In China, it’s a pragmatic step to regain Vatican influence, he added.
“The Communist Party is trying to make the Catholic Church simply a national church that they can control and manipulate,” he said. “That is what the Vatican won’t stand to see happen.”
Whatever arrangement is concluded, the Pope will retain final say on appointed leaders and “safeguard the prerogatives of the church,” said Father Heyndrickx, who has closely followed negotiations. “This is for sure.”
Still, any such deal would likely leave unresolved a multitude of problems, including the division with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, or the status of underground parishioners.
They, in particular, “are likely to feel somewhat betrayed,” given the hardship they have endured to remain faithful to the Pope, said Anthony Clark, director of the Asian Studies program at Whitworth University.
It’s also a fraught time for the church to cozy up to China, which has in recent years staged a sweeping religious crackdown.
In China’s far-western Xinjiang region, for example, authorities have begun ordering Muslims to report “religious activities” – including circumcisions and even attendance at weddings and funerals – to a series of new local oversight committees.
The intent is “to guide religion to better adapt to the secular society,” a local official told state media in late 2016.
Authorities have, meanwhile, removed crosses from hundreds of Protestant and Catholic churches; entire buildings have been razed. “Now seems a precarious time for the Vatican to make agreements with Beijing,” said Prof. Clark.
Much of the destruction has taken place around Wenzhou, placing religious leaders like Father Lu at a fraught crossroads.
His forced vacation in September “was not that bad,” he said, particularly compared with his treatment in 2003, when authorities placed him under house arrest for 14 months, cutting off all outside contact because he had organized an unsanctioned university religious event.
“That was a real loss of freedom,” said Father Lu.
He and the others have now returned to Wenzhou. But Bishop Shao has been barred from organizing an inauguration event to assume the top position in Wenzhou. Authorities also ordered him not to hold large-scale events.
Caught in the fray, Father Lu expressed faith in church leadership and God, who he said remains “the one really able to rule history.”
Still, he finds the prospect of a Catholic rapprochement with Beijing unsettling.
“If China and the Vatican come to some agreement, it will further restrict underground church clergy,” he said. Perhaps he would be asked to leave his position “for further study” imposed by China.
It may be an acceptable sacrifice to secure the long-term welfare of the church.
But he worries nonetheless.
“As to whether an agreement would allow the government more control, that’s something the Vatican will have to consider,” he said.