As Jaime Cardinal Sin walked up the aisle of Peking Cathedral Sunday morning, the Philippine prelate was surrounded by scores of Chinese wanting to kiss his ring.
This traditional greeting for a Roman Catholic cardinal marked the first time in three decades that Chinese authorities have permitted direct contact between a Catholic priest and Chinese Catholics, who are forbidden by China's Constitution from recognizing the authority of the Pope or professing an allegiance to the Vatican. Cardinal Sin is also the first Asian archbishop to visit China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
And despite plainclothes security police patrolling the grounds of the cathedral, nearly half the congregation followed the cardinal into the church courtyard.
Behind him, looking somewhat ill at ease, followed the bishop of Peking, Michael Fu Tieshan, who as head of the official Catholic Church in Peking answers to the Communist government's Religious Affairs Bureau and not to Rome.
Cardinal Sin, the outspoken archbishop of Manila, is officially in China for 10 days to visit relatives. Earlier the two priests had met for half an hour to ''exchange greetings.'' The jovial cardinal invited Bishop Fu to ''visit the house of Sin.'' Fu did not comment on the offer, and it was not translated by the Chinese interpreter.
Both the Chinese government's decision to grant Cardinal Sin access to the cathedral and his own extremely conciliatory approach Sunday suggest that the ''personal'' visit may be used by both sides to open discussions on the rift between Rome and the Chinese Catholic Church, which was forced by the Communist government to split from the Vatican in 1957.
Before leaving the Philippines last week, Cardinal Sin said he was bringing a message of love from the Pope to Peking. He has requested meetings with Chinese leaders as well as church officials.
Bishop Fu denied Sunday that he had discussed the issue of ties with Rome during the meeting, although he did not rule out an eventual reconciliation. When asked about the possibility of resuming relations with Rome, he replied: ''This matter does not depend on us.''