FENGXIANG, China—Like many Roman Catholic clergy in China, Bishop Li Jingfeng has experienced his share of hardship.
Communist cadres threw him in prison for 15 years, then kept him toiling in a coal mine for seven more. Once he was free, they routinely detained him and harried his followers.
All along, they badgered him to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the schismatic state-run group that controls the Chinese church and shuns the Vatican.
But Li never crumpled. And now he's emerged from what's known as the underground Catholic Church to minister in the open, with the officially atheist state begrudgingly acknowledging his religious status. His situation underscores the progress in the careful minuet between the Vatican and China as they inch toward a rapprochement after 55 years of rupture.
The path has been strewn with obstacles. In February, the Vatican elevated outspoken Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen to cardinal, stinging China. Then last week, China consecrated two bishops without Vatican approval, drawing a rebuke from Pope Benedict XVI. A Holy See spokesman suggested those bishops face possible excommunication. A third ordained bishop received a Vatican blessing.
Yet apart from such fireworks, the divisions within China's Catholic Church are easing, experts say. Priests and bishops have emerged from the underground church to work alongside those from the state-sanctioned church. In many cases, bishops named by the state quietly contacted the Vatican to receive papal blessing. As the gap between the two sides narrows, it's stirring hope of a Beijing-Vatican understanding.
"A great deal of reconciliation has occurred," said Jean-Paul Wiest, a Beijing-based writer on topics related to the Roman Catholic Church. "The so-called difference between the state-sanctioned church and the underground church is less and less meaningful."
The Vatican now recognizes some 90 percent of China's bishops, Wiest said, including many who are associated with the state-sanctioned church.
Li, seated in his book-lined office adjacent to the West Street Catholic Church in this city in central Shaanxi province, said he believes China and the Vatican will rebuild diplomatic ties "in just one or two years."
Lucid and spry at 85, speaking in a mixture of self-taught English and Chinese, Li said he expects to make his first trip out of China.
"It's very possible that I will be allowed to go to Rome if conditions get better," he said, grinning widely and then breaking into peals of laughter.
His delight at the prospect is understandable.
The Chinese Communist Party has long looked at organized religion as a possible challenge to its authority. Persecution of underground Catholic priests and bishops has been severe.
When he was a priest, Bishop Li was thrown in jail or work camps from 1958 to 1980. When freed, he was consecrated as a bishop. The ceremony took place in the house of the bishop who officiated, with only three priests present. Church activities at the time, he said, were "private, secret, clandestine."
As recently as 2001, authorities detained Li again, pressuring him for 48 consecutive days, he said, "to join the Patriotic Association, to be independent of the Vatican." He declined. In August 2004 they relented and publicly recognized his status as bishop of Fengxiang, an agricultural hub of 520,000 people.
It was an unusual step and one of many signs that the Vatican and China have quietly sought ways to heal their rift.
Both sides have their reasons. The Vatican would like the Chinese church to have normal contact with the worldwide church. While China's senior leaders operate in an opaque sphere, some apparently favor mending ties with the Vatican to earn international favor and isolate Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. The Vatican is Taiwan's only diplomatic ally in Europe.
Moves toward rapprochement under Pope John Paul II, who died last year, failed because China remained wary of the Polish-born pontiff's anti-communist leanings.
Upon ascension to the papal throne in April 2005, Pope Benedict immediately spoke of reuniting the 5 million followers of China's state-sanctioned church with the estimated 5 million to 7 million Catholics who attend underground churches.
"He believes there are no insurmountable problems between the Holy See and China," said Gerard O'Connell, a Rome-based journalist with two decades of experience covering the Vatican.
At least eight Catholic bishops languish in jail, as well as dozens of priests and lay Catholics, according to the nonprofit Cardinal Kung Foundation, of Stamford, Conn., which advocates for China's underground church.
Yet China and the Vatican also have found methods to bridge differences. Chinese authorities largely have named new bishops in recent years who are acceptable to the Holy See. Moreover, China's religious authorities haven't sought to punish leaders of the state-sanctioned Catholic Church who ask the Vatican for legitimacy.
Still, these leaders have made the requests quietly. That even was the case for a senior Chinese Catholic leader, the state-appointed archbishop of Shanghai, Aloysius Jin, who's 89.
"It's kept very quiet when a bishop is reconciled, is approved, because it might endanger him," said Audrey Donnithorne, a retired Hong Kong scholar on Asia who follows Catholic Church affairs closely.
Moreover, experts talk of how priests and clerics from the state-sanctioned and underground churches increasingly work side by side.
"There are cases of a state-sanctioned bishop functioning as bishop while an underground bishop lives in the same house, functioning as vicar general," or the second person in charge after the bishop, Wiest said.
Opposition to Sino-Vatican reconciliation runs deep in the State Administration of Religious Affairs and in the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association, which employs thousands of bureaucrats.
"It would really end the raison d'etre of the Patriotic Association, which is to exercise control over the church," Donnithorne said.
"They'll be out of a job," said Wiest.
In Bishop Li's diocese, which has 38 churches and 20,000 parishioners, Patriotic Association officials often arrive seeking information and looking to resolve problems.
"They have little to do," Li said. "I myself solve problems in the diocese."
Li holds no apparent bitterness over his mistreatment or jailing. He said he meets with township, county and provincial officials as often as they want.
"We have known each other for dozens of years. Every year there are dozens of opportunities to debate," Li said. "We have many friends among the officials. They are all atheists. But they have trust in me. They say, `This man is very honest.'"
Indeed, an official at the Religious Affairs Bureau of Fengxiang County, who offered only his surname of Zhang, described the bishop as a "knowledgeable, approachable and faithful person. I want to add that he loves his country, too."
With a knowing glimmer in his eye, Li said some fellow clergy members co-opted into leadership positions in the Patriotic Association quietly "act against it. They don't accept its control."
But publicly, to avoid punishment from the Chinese government, they're sometimes they're forced to go against Rome, he said.
"They have no choice," he said. "A majority of them have conflicts in their hearts."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)
ISSUES AT STAKE: Several issues divide the Vatican and China. Here's a look at what the two sides want.
_Appointment of bishops: The Holy See demands that the pontiff has the final say in approving any priest to become a bishop. It's willing to consult with China, as it does with other countries, such as Vietnam, and give power of refusal to the government. Currently, China says its church is free of Vatican control and elects its own bishops, with direct oversight of the Communist Party, whose members must profess atheism.
_Religious freedom: Vatican officials want guarantees from China that the Catholic community can organize its life without undue influence from the government. Bishops must be allowed to travel freely. Priests must not be jailed for religious work.
_Diplomatic recognition: China demands that the Vatican end diplomatic ties with Taiwan and open an apostolic nunciature, or embassy, in Beijing. The Vatican has indicated a willingness to maintain a religious envoy in Taiwan and switch diplomatic allegiances.
_Noninterference: China demands that the Vatican stay out of China's internal political affairs, meaning no criticism on China's restrictions on religious freedom and human rights. It's especially wary of the Vatican criticizing the Communist Party's monopoly grip on power.
Only informal dialogue exists between the Vatican and China.
"Direct negotiations, as such, actually are not under way," Gerard O'Connell, a veteran Vatican journalist, said in a telephone interview. "Maybe they are on the threshold, but it will take a decision by the senior leadership in China."
The behind-the-scenes dialogue has been conducted largely through the auspices of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based lay group that has invited Chinese scholars and officials to Italy for discussions.
"It includes people with some negotiating experience in foreign affairs," said Audrey Donnithorne, a Hong Kong-based retired professor who follows Catholic affairs. "They've been encouraged. They are working hand in hand" with the Holy See.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-VATICAN
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