ROME — Pope Francis reportedly has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit him in the Vatican, continuing a press for closer ties with Beijing that has become one of the diplomatic cornerstones of his papacy.

According to news reports, Francis extended the invitation in a handwritten letter delivered by an Argentine friend who’s not part of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, suggesting the move was a personal initiative of the pontiff.

China is one of just a handful of countries that doesn’t presently have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and it’s long been a keen priority for Rome.

Officials see relations with Beijing as crucial to projecting the Vatican’s role as a voice of conscience in world affairs, and also to protecting the roughly 13 million Catholics in China who occasionally suffer government harassment and persecution.

Francis’ outreach began just days after his election in March 2013, when he wrote to Jinping for the first time. It continued during an August trip to South Korea, when Francis became the first pontiff to fly through Chinese airspace and sent a telegram offering “divine blessings of peace and well-being” on China.

On the way back from the South Korea trip, Francis told reporters that he would travel to China “tomorrow” if the opportunity presented itself.

The Vatican “is always open to being in contact, always, because it has a real esteem for the Chinese people,” the pope said. “The Church has simply requested the freedom for its ministry, to do its work with no other condition.”

In the new letter to Jinping, Francis reportedly invited the Chinese premier to talk about world peace and also reiterated his desire to visit the country.

According to the Argentinian news portal Infobae, the letter came out of an early September meeting in the pope’s Vatican residence with Ricardo Romano, an Argentinian politician, and José Luján, a representative of the Chinese Science Academy to the Mercosur, a Latin American trading bloc that includes Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Venezuela.

Also present at the meeting, according to the report, were the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and his deputy, French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti. Under Pope Benedict XVI, Parolin had conducted much of the Vatican’s back-door diplomacy with China.

According to the report, Francis indicated that he wanted to get the ball rolling, but Parolin would do the heavy lifting.

“I’m a general practitioner,” the pope reportedly said. “In matters that concern Asia, Cardinal Parolin is the surgeon.”

Romano, who delivered the pope’s letter to Beijing three days after the meeting, said that one conclusion of the encounter was the need to strengthen relationships between the Vatican and Beijing in order to achieve a new level of governability in China based on social equality.

Despite being handwritten, the letter was reportedly sealed with official stamps allowing it to be recognized as a papal missive. A government spokesman in China welcomed the gesture, but did not comment on a possible visit by Jinping to Rome.

The first time Francis wrote the Chinese leader was when Jinping took office in March 2013, barely three days after the pontiff.

In an interview published last March by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Francis said, “I wrote to him, and he wrote back. The relationships are there. It’s a big country that I love deeply.”

During the South Korea trip in August, a Vatican spokesman said that Pope Francis has made it clear to aides that “Asia is a priority.”

The interest has deep roots for Francis.

One reason the future pope joined the Jesuit order in the late 1950s was his dream of becoming a missionary priest in Asia, specifically in Japan. He was never able to fulfill the goal as a result of a respiratory infection suffered in his youth, which resulted in the loss of a piece of one lung.

The first time Francis managed to set foot on the continent was when he visited South Korea in August, and he’ll be going again in January of 2015 when he visits Sri Lanka and the Philippines.