Chinese Catholics on Friday cheered Pope Francis' visit to neighboring South Korea, saying they hoped his trip to their region would help end the estrangement between Beijing and the Vatican. But in a sign that the decades-long China-Vatican drama still has its glitches, the Vatican acknowledged that a telegram of greetings sent by Francis to the Chinese leadership apparently never arrived.
The Vatican sent the telegram from Francis' chartered Alitalia plane as it entered Chinese airspace early Thursday, following Vatican protocol that calls for the pope to send such greetings whenever he flies over a foreign country.
Such telegrams usually go unnoticed. But the gesture took on unique significance because the Vatican and China have no diplomatic relations — and therefore no official contacts — and because Beijing had refused to let St. John Paul II fly through its airspace when he visited South Korea in 1989.
But the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Friday it appeared the telegram never arrived. China's embassy to Italy asked the Holy See for a copy of the telegram, saying it hadn't received it. A copy was immediately provided to the embassy, he said.
"It happens that maybe when you send a telegram by a flying plane there are some problems in receiving it," Lombardi said, adding that he understood the telegram is actually sent by the pilot to the air traffic control tower, which then is responsible for relaying it onto the correct destination. "But in any case, the telegram has arrived now. It surely has arrived."
Despite the glitch, China's Foreign Ministry responded to reports of the telegram with a statement Thursday saying it remained committed to establishing a "constructive dialogue" and improving ties.
However, China's entirely state-run media imposed a virtual news blackout on the visit, ensuring the public at large would know little about Francis' activities. In another sign of Beijing's continuing ambivalence toward relations with the Holy See, reports said officials were preventing some Chinese Catholics and clergy from taking part in the activities in South Korea under threat of reprisals.
On Friday, Catholic laypeople and priests who flocked to a Mass at Beijing's oldest church said they felt closer to the pope. All expressed hopes for a papal visit in the not-too-distant future.
"I believe this is a step forward in advancing communication," said the Rev. Mathew Zhen Xuebin, secretary general of the Beijing diocese. "We have hope that one day the two countries of China and the Vatican will establish diplomatic ties and that the pope will be able to visit China."
China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.
Relations have been tense over Beijing's demand that it have the right to appoint bishops, even those unacceptable to the Vatican. The Holy See says that key prerogative belongs to it alone and the disagreement tops the list of those blocking reconciliation.
In a telling sign that Francis is toeing a very delicate political line with China, he artfully dodged a question posed to him Friday by a young man from Hong Kong about what could be done to help the faithful in mainland China. The question was one of several posed to the pope during an informal gathering in Solmoe, South Korea, where young Catholics from across the region were gathered for an Asian Catholic youth festival.
Lombardi noted that the pope himself said he wouldn't answer all the questions posed to him. "This was obviously one," Lombardi said, adding that the pope clearly didn't want to cloud a very pastoral event with any overtly political messages.
The pope wasn't the only one to dodge a question about China, however. For the second day in a row, Lombardi himself avoided reporters' questions about whether a China leg was ever in the cards for this trip or that some informal talks were held earlier this summer between Beijing and the Holy See.
News of the pope's message went virtually unreported in China's state-controlled media, although several people attending Mass said they had read about it on the Internet in reports that were later taken down.
South Korean organizers of the pope's visit also expressed regret that some young Chinese Catholics had been prevented from traveling to South Korea to join in the festivities due to what they called the "complicated situation within China."
The Catholic website AsiaNews said about 80 young people were staying away from the events after warnings of unspecified consequences if they participated. It said a number of Chinese priests residing in South Korea had also been called home before Francis' arrival.
Zhen said he had no information about the numbers of Chinese participants or any being blocked from traveling.
Parishioners at Beijing's weather-beaten 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception said they were following Francis' visit as best they could.
Maria Mian, a retired teacher in her 70s, said she felt his presence in Asia would give impetus to a greater Beijing-Vatican dialogue, although she added, "Things will come along gradually."
Night watchman Xu Yong, 35, said he was hoping for some form of divine intervention.
"This is not something that men can solve on their own," Xu said. "We will need God's help."