The small group of Chinese Catholics who crossed the border to see Pope Francis covered their faces for fear of reprisal. Church officials blamed the Communist government for preventing mainland China’s bishops from coming to see the pope. And diplomats said that China had watched the pope’s activities closely, and warily.
Yet as Pope Francis returned to Rome on Monday from a four-day trip to Mongolia, he had nothing but positive things to say about China.
“The relations with China are very respectful — I personally have great admiration for the Chinese culture. They are very open, let’s put it this way,” Francis said in a news conference aboard the papal plane. He said he hoped there would be more exposure to Roman Catholics in China so that the Chinese citizens did not think that the church had intentions to shape their culture and values or that it was “dependent on another power.”
In his decade as pope, Francis has excoriated what he considers the authoritarian streak of Western nationalists, the reactionary ideology of American conservatives in the church and the unchristian hardheartedness of leaders in Washington and Europe who don’t open their borders to migrants or act to protect the environment.
But when it comes to China, where he is hoping his church will make inroads, Francis is much more forgiving.
The pope’s delicate — critics say doormat — diplomacy in the region was highlighted during his visit to Mongolia, a nation sandwiched between China and Russia, great powers run by two strongmen who have vexed the Vatican, but whom Francis has been reluctant to criticize.
Francis, for instance, has never blamed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by name for invading Ukraine. Before leaving for Mongolia, he further angered Ukrainians by praising 18th-century Russian rulers and the Great Russia they helped create — an empire that Mr. Putin has invoked in framing his invasion of Ukraine.
“I spoke about Great Russia not so much in geographic terms, more of its great culture throughout history,” Francis explained on the papal plane, adding that the incident was “unfortunate.”
But on the flight back, he talked about the greatness of Dostoyevsky before clarifying that he never meant to exalt imperialism, which “always consolidates in ideology.” Culture he said, “is never imperialism, but it is dialogue.”
Francis suggested that Mongolia embodied that spirit of dialogue, telling a Mongolian reporter, “We can say that your land has two great powers — Russia and China — and for this reason, your mysticism is to try and dialogue with the ‘third neighbor,’ without disrespect for these two with whom you have good relations.”
The “third neighbor” term was not a Francis neologism, but an echoing of official Mongolian foreign policy. While Mongolia’s economy relies heavily on its two giant neighbors, and especially China, it has pursued a diplomatic strategy called the “third neighbor” which seeks to reinforce political independence and cultivate allies and investment partners from countries including Japan, South Korea, Germany and the United States.
“It is a very real thing here,” said Odbayar Erdenetsogt, the foreign policy adviser to Mongolia’s president. But that didn’t change the fact that the country’s priority was the best relations possible with its two actual neighbors: “Our president is very good friends with Putin. He is very close and very good friends with Xi Jinping. We have to have that connection.”
Asked whether that relationship could help the Vatican’s diplomacy with either nation, but especially China, Mr. Erdenetsogt offered a diplomatic reality check.
“I don’t know whether it can help anyone, but we are being very active making our voices heard, but in a correct way,” he said. “We cannot be too loud. We cannot be too pushy.”
Francis, like the Mongolians, feels he needs to tread lightly.
In 2018, Francis, seeking more access to China, made a largely secretive deal with the government to ensure more collaboration over the nomination of bishops. The pope typically appoints bishops, but the Communist government has long insisted on naming its own to more closely control the state-run church there. China has already violated the agreement by unilaterally making appointments.
On Sunday, as Francis concluded a Mass at the Steppe Arena, he invited two Chinese bishops, Cardinal John Tong Hon, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, and Cardinal-elect Stephen Chow Sau-yan, the bishop of Hong Kong, onto the stage.
Holding up their hands, Francis said: “I would like to take advantage of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble people of China. To all the people I wish the best. Strive ahead, always advancing.” In a message to his flock, but also perhaps to allay Chinese government concerns, he concluded, “And I ask Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens.”
Bishop Chow visited mainland China earlier this year in an attempt to build bridges and promote exchanges on the bumpy path of rapprochement between China and the Vatican.
Asked about the absence of the bishops from the mainland China, he said “I would love to see the bishops here,” but added, “honestly I don’t know why they are not here.”
“It is just that they could not come,” he said, “but there might be other reasons behind it.”
Asked why an explanation for the absence had proven so mysterious, the bishop said: “They don’t feel they need to explain, basically. Different governments, why do they need to explain to everyone? Things happen. You don’t explain your family’s, your company’s, issues to the world, right?”
Other prelates didn’t think it was so mysterious why the mainland Chinese bishops didn’t show.
“I did not decide on that,” said Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Bangkok, “because it’s the Chinese government that takes the decision.”
Caution about the Chinese government was palpable out in the Mongolian capital’s vast Sükhbaatar Square on Saturday where officials gave the pope a welcome ceremony fit for an emperor, but where a group of a few Chinese Catholics with small Chinese flags joined a tiny crowd in a country with only about 1,400 Catholics.
“It’s so close, we had to come,” said one of the group members, who declined to give his name or have his picture taken for fear of retribution.
Francis touched on other issues during the nearly 40-minute news conference on the plane home. Now often using a wheelchair, he said that he would travel to a conference in Marseilles at the end of the month, and might visit a small European nation down the road. But, he said, “to tell you the truth,” it was “not as easy as it was at the beginning” of his pontificate. “We’ll see.”
The same could be said for the negotiations with China.
But Bishop Chow remained optimistic and backed the pope’s give-no-offense offensive.
“We are honestly both looking for ways to move forward — you know you need to build trust,” he said, adding that he had seen “more openness, more dialogue”
He called for more face-to-face meetings and the establishing of chemistry between the negotiators. “I cannot say that China doesn’t want to talk, because it’s not fair,” he said. “If they don’t want to talk, they stop everything.”