ROME – Capping months of speculation, the Vatican announced Saturday that it has signed a “provisional agreement” with the People’s Republic of China about the appointment of bishops, officially recognizing eight prelates named by the Chinese government.

In a Sept. 22 communique, the Vatican announced that the deal had been signed during a meeting held earlier that morning in Beijing between Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, Undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, and Wang Chao, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, and their respective delegations.

As part of the accord, Pope Francis has decided to officially recognize eight bishops named by the Chinese government’s Patriotic Association without the permission of the pope, meaning that until now, technically they had been excommunicated.

Since the 1949 Communist takeover of China, Catholicism in the country has been split between an “official” church that cooperates with the government and an “undergound” church which resists its control.

According to a Vatican statement, the pope’s wish is that with the decision to recognize the bishops, “a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics.”

The Vatican also established the Chinese Diocese of Chengde, near Beijing, with the Church of the Good Shepherd as its cathedral.

Calling the agreement “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement,” the Vatican said the accord has been agreed upon as the result of a “long process of negotiation” and “foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application.”

The deal, according to the Vatican statement, is meant to create conditions for greater collaboration between the Catholic Church and mainland China at a bilateral level.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, traveling with Francis in Lithuania, said the deal “is not the end of a process, it’s the beginning.”

“This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints,” Burke said. “The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

Though the specifics of how appointments will take place have not been released, rumors have been circulating for months that a potential agreement was in place and that it could possibly look like the model the Holy See has used with Vietnam, allowing the Holy See to pick bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the government.

In comments to The South China Morning Post Sept. 21, a day before official Vatican confirmation of the deal, Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, called for the resignation of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, for his “incredible betrayal” in pursuing a deal with China.

On the other hand, a senior Vatican official said Saturday that critics of the China deal are merely “a loud minority.” Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Sciences, told The Global Times Friday, “they are very strong in their position. They are loud, but there are not very many of them.”

In a Sept. 22 statement, Parolin said the signing of the accord is of “great importance” for Catholics in China, and for the ongoing dialogue between China and the Holy See.

The Holy See’s goal, he said, “is a pastoral one: the Holy See intends just to create the condition, or to help to create the condition, of a greater freedom, autonomy and organization, in order that the Catholic Church can dedicate itself to the mission of announcing the Gospel and also to contribute to the wellbeing and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the country, of every person and of the world as a whole.”

Noting how the deal marks the first time that all bishops in China are in full communion with Rome, Parolin said unity, trust and “a new impetus” are needed to keep the relationship between China and the Holy See moving forward.

Francis, he said, has invited all Catholics in China to make a commitment to reconciliation in order to overcome both past and present misunderstandings.

“In this way they can really contribute, and they will be able to perform the duty of the Church which is the announcement of the Gospel and, at the same time, to contribute to the growth, the spiritual and material growth, of their country and to peace and reconciliation in the world.”

In comments to Crux, Father Bernard Cevellera, head of Asia News and an expert in Chinese affairs, said the impact the agreement will have in China is still unknown, but Catholics in China are divided in how they feel about the agreement.

While in a certain sense everyone has hoped an agreement would happen, some lament the current accord because “they say that it forgets the underground Christians.”

He said the fact that it is a “provisional” agreement is significant, because it implies that there is still not a firm, unanimous commitment to it.

Noting how a representative of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The Chinese Global Times yesterday that he did not know a Vatican delegation was in China for the signing of an accord, Cevellera said “this is very, very important, because it shows that there is division in the Chinese leadership between those who want the agreement and those who don’t.”

The agreement, then, could create more tension within the Chinese Communist Party about how to handle their relationship with the Church, and it would be up to Chinese President Xi Jinping to either officialize the accord, or dismantle it, he said.

A positive aspect of the agreement, he said, is that with a deal in place there will be no “de facto schism” between the government-backed Church and the so-called “underground” Church in union with Rome.

One problem that has yet to be adressed, however, is the fate of the more than 37 underground bishops who have not been recognized by the Chinese government, meaning that for now, they are in limbo.

Cervellera said he believes there will be no immediate appointment of bishops, but that little by little the Vatican will try to push for the “unofficial” bishops to be recognized.