ROME – Pope Francis discussed the state of the Church with Taiwan’s bishops this week, while assuring them that episcopal appointments in China will remain the purview of the Holy See.

A small group of seven Taiwanese bishops met with Francis for their ad limina visit May 14. During the visit, the Taiwanese bishops invited the pope to visit the country on the occasion of the National Eucharistic Congress, scheduled to take place next March.

“The pope did not say yes or no, but he smiled,” Archbishop Hung Shan-chuan of Taipei told Catholic News Agency.

A papal visit to Taiwan has already been proposed. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen officially forwarded the pope an invitation to visit the country via Cardinal Peter Turkson, who was in Taiwan in September 2017 for the International Congress of the Apostleship of the Sea.

Hung told CNA that Taiwan “is like a miniature of the universal Church. All the religious congregations are in Taiwan, both male and female congregations. They have many activities, and the government never interferes with their activities. In addition, all the interreligious relations are peaceful.”

According to Hung, the bishops’ meeting with Francis lasted about an hour, and the bishops spoke with the pope primarily about family issues and vocations in Taiwan.

“The pope asked how many vocations there were in Taiwan, and we told him we had 12 vocations in 7 dioceses, that is quite few. The pope wanted to understand why there were not so many vocations,” Hung said.

Taiwan might also be affected by an eventual China–Holy See deal.

The Holy See has long maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which is formally known as the Republic of China. In October and November 2017, two conferences in Rome and in Taipei celebrated the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic relations.

Speaking Oct. 5, 2017, Matthew Lee, Taiwan’s ambassador to the Holy See, stressed at one of these commemorations that “Taiwan cares a lot about friendship with the Holy See. Our ties are marked by a tight and growing friendship that is reflected in humanitarian projects, in cultural exchanges, in educational and interreligious dialogue.”

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, underscored at the same meeting that “the Holy See will keep on being Taiwan’s companion in the family of people.”

Despite these mutual declarations of friendship, there has always been the concern that the Holy See would drop diplomatic relations with Taiwan if it gets a diplomatic agreement with the Beijing government. The People’s Republic of China regards Taiwan as rebel province, not a sovereign nation.

Hung noted that “a possible diplomatic agreement between China and the Holy See…would mean breaking relations with Taiwan.”

“There is a strong interaction between Taiwan and the Holy See,” he added.

Hung also told CNA that “the pope is well informed,” about negotiations with China, and that the pope said to the Taiwanese bishops that episcopal appointment must stay in the Holy See’s hands.