VATICAN CITY - Catholic bishops from China will for the first time attend a major Vatican meeting starting this week, the Vatican said on Monday, the first concrete sign of a thaw between the Holy See and Beijing following a landmark agreement.
"There will be two bishops from continental China. They were invited by the pope," Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told a news conference. "I think they are already on their way to Rome."
Baldisseri said it was the first time the Beijing government has allowed bishops to leave the country to attend a Vatican synod, a meeting which takes place every few years on a different topic.
The deal, which was in the making for more than 10 years and signed on Sept. 22, gives the Vatican a long-sought say in the choice of bishops in China, though critics have labeled it a sellout to the Communist government.
China's approximately 12 million Catholics have been split between an underground Church swearing loyalty to the Vatican and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association.
One of the bishops, Joseph Guo Jincai, was ordained into the government-backed Church without papal permission and had been excommunicated by the Vatican. As part of the Sept. 22 agreement, the pope lifted his excommunication and recognized his legitimacy.
The other bishop is John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, who had been ordained with papal permission and was already recognized by the Vatican.
Both will take part the month-long synod that starts on Wednesday to discuss the role of young people in the 1.2 billion-member Church.
"In the past the Holy See invited bishops from continental China but they were never able to attend," Baldisseri said.
He said it was a result of the improved relations between the Vatican and Beijing following the agreement.
The Vatican has said the absence of a deal could have led to a schism between Chinese Catholics that would have been difficult to heal.
Concerns remain, however, over the fate of about 12 priests and bishops believed to be in detention in China.