The government-backed Catholic Church of China has installed two Vatican-approved bishops, signaling an improved relationship between the communist country and the Holy See.
Father Gan Junqiu was consecrated as the new bishop of the southern diocese of Guangzhou on Tuesday, while Father Lu Shouwang was consecrated as the bishop of Yichang, in the central province of Hubei, last Friday.
Gan's consecration was closed to the media and all but few hundred Catholic faithful attended while others watched a live TV broadcast.
The state-backed churches, under the umbrella of Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), welcomed the Vatican's approval of Gan, but Lu Guocun, vice chairman of CCPA, emphasized that Gan was China's choice.
"If they approve the bishops that we select, this is a good development ... We don't oppose their approval, but this bishop was picked by us last year in October," Lu told reporters after the two-and-a-half-hour ceremony.
Last year, the relationship between the Vatican and Beijing got strained when China unitarily promoted three bishops without an approval from the main Catholic Church body in Rome.
Catholics in China, numbering around 8 to 12 million, are split between the state-sanctioned church and the underground church, which rejects government ties and answers only to the Vatican. Furthermore, Beijing and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations.
"We hope China and the Vatican establish relations at an early date. When we hold Mass every day, we pray for this," Lu said.
Although the officially atheist government of China and the Vatican may have agreed on the latest consecrations, Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong cautioned against reading too much into them.
"Of course, it's a good thing that both sides [approved], especially [that] the religious affairs bureau in China is not pushing its candidates too hard," he told Reuters.
"In general, though, I cannot associate it with any development, or new change in religious policy," Lam added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang meanwhile said China was willing to find ways to improve relations with the Vatican.
"We also hope that the Vatican side can proceed from the overall situation of Sino-Vatican relations," he stated, "and fully consider the history and reality of the Chinese Catholic church," which Qin said had made efforts to "promote the spread of the gospel."