ROME – Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli said in a recent interview that while the Vatican’s relationship with China is complex, a 2018 provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops will likely be renewed.

“The provisional agreement with China expires in September of this year and we must find a formula, we must see what to do,” Celli said in a recent interview with the Stanze Vaticane program of Italian television network, TGCOM24.

Celli, a longtime Vatican diplomat and former president of the Pontifical Council for Communications, was the key negotiator of the agreement. He told the television program the tone of the Vatican’s interaction with China thus far has been one of “respect, clarity, co-responsibility and foresight.”

“We are trying to look toward the future, and we are trying to give to the future of our realizations a deep and respectful basis, and I would say that we are working in this sense,” he said, insisting that the path forward with China was outlined in Pope Francis’s letter to Catholics in China, shortly after the provisional agreement was signed in 2018.

Celli’s declaration that the agreement is set to expire and will likely be renewed is the first public information about the deal that has been provided, as the terms of the accord were never published.

As part of the original 2018 agreement, Pope Francis officially recognized eight bishops named by the Chinese government without the permission of the pope.

Though the specifics of how episcopal appointments would take place have remained a mystery, it has long been assumed that the process is similar to the model that the Holy See has used with Vietnam, allowing the Holy See to pick bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the government.

So far, there have only been two new Chinese bishops named since the deal was struck, but critics of the agreement have argued that these ordinations are no litmus test for success, as the candidates had been selected before the agreement was reached.

Many opponents of the deal have argued that the accord has made religious freedom in China worse, as the government is able to use it as cover for destroying churches and shrines, and tearing down crosses.

In his interview with TGCOM24, Celli said it is “undeniable that there are situations and events that require a path that will not be easy,” but he insisted that despite the bumps in the road, the Holy See “wants to continue with this step, it wants to go forward and arrive to a normality from which the Chinese Catholic Church can fully express its fidelity to the Gospel and also in respect of being Chinese.”

“The Catholic Church in China must be fully Chinese, but fully Catholic! There are no discounts to make,” he said. As things move along, “we must all be faithful to the Gospel.”

“It is not an easy path, but we have embarked on a journey of respect, attention and mutual understanding to resolve those knots that remain and those situations which leave us more than thoughtful, I would say worried,” he said, noting that the path to take, “has already been indicated. We must carry it forward.”

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