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VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Chinese Catholics to overcome past divisions and open a new phase of faith following a landmark agreement over bishop nominations aimed at ending decades of estrangement between the Vatican and Beijing that had split the church.
Francis announced that he had written a letter to the Chinese faithful aimed at encouraging them to "heal the wounds of the past and re-establish and maintain full communion." The letter was to be released later Wednesday.
It follows the deal signed Saturday governing the naming of bishops in China. 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 addresses a crucial aspect of church governance in China, it doesn't address more pastoral issues of unifying split communities, which Francis' message on Wednesday presumably will aim to do.
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.
Francis — and before him Pope Benedict XVI — 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.
In comments at his weekly general audience Wednesday, Francis said the agreement was aimed at "favoring more positive cooperation between the Holy See and Chinese authorities for the good of the Catholic community and the harmony of the entire society."
He said his message was one of "fraternal encouragement."
"With it, I hope that a new phase can open in China that helps to heal the wounds of the past, to re-establish and maintain full communion of all Chinese Catholics" and renew a commitment to spread the faith.
He called for all Catholics to accompany the faithful in China with prayers and friendship "so that they don't feel they are alone."
"All the church prays with them and for them," he said.
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.
"There is always suffering in an agreement," the pope said.
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.