Pope Francis is urging Chinese Catholics to make gestures of reconciliation as a demonstration that they are in full communion with the See of Peter.

Francis made the comments during his Wednesday general audience, amid what appears to be another stall in the Vatican’s longstanding efforts to reach a deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops.

The pontiff recalled that on Thursday, May 24th, it is the Feast Day of ‘Mary Help of Christians’ — who is particularly venerated at the Sanctuary of Sheshan, in Shanghai.

Francis led thousands of people in prayer that Chinese Catholics can live their faith serenely “and can make gestures of fraternity, harmony and reconciliation in full communion” with the pope.

“Dear disciples of the Lord in China, the Universal Church prays with you and for you, so that even amid difficulties, you may continue to entrust yourselves to God’s will,” Francis said.

China’s government bars Catholics from having contact with the Vatican and allows worship only in government-monitored churches.

Millions remain loyal to the pope and worship in secret, underground churches, whose priests and parishioners are frequently detained and harassed.

Reports from earlier this year said the two sides were on the brink of an agreement about the appointment of bishops.

However, recent decisions by the Chinese government to crack down on Christian worship have called the deal into question.

In a recent interview with the Italian daily, La Stampa, Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said talks with the Chinese government are continuing.

“If the government wasn’t communist and respected religious freedom, there would be no need to deal with it,” Parolin said. “Because we would already have what we’d like.”

According to Parolin, a fundamental aspect of any agreement between the Vatican and China is the unity of the Church, including that of China’s official Church, that is controlled by the government, and the so-called “underground” Church.

“We expect that we can reach an agreement regarding above all the process on the nomination of bishops,” Parolin said. “And we hope that the agreement is then respected. On our side, there’s the will to do so, and we hope that on the side of the Chinese government there’s the same will.”

Parolin’s comments came after Chen Zongrong, an official overseeing religious affairs, said Beijing would not allow “foreign forces” to govern the country’s faith groups.

“The Chinese constitution clearly states that China’s religious groups and religious affairs cannot be controlled by foreign forces, and (the foreign forces) should not interfere in Chinese religious affairs in any way,” Chen said.

This report incorporated elements from The Associated Press.