Cardinal Joseph Zen is auspiciously named. The cardinal’s courteous demeanour and gentle eloquence give him an air of serenity – which makes his attacks on the Chinese government all the more devastating.

Cardinal Zen, who is based in Hong Kong, has often warned the Vatican against any rapprochement with Beijing. He has criticised the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), the state-run “official” Church, for its subservience to the communist government. He has spoken frankly about the state’s human rights abuses.

But China’s most senior Catholic cleric is now sounding worried. The Beijing-Rome deal which he has long opposed could be around the corner.

Last week the cardinal pleaded with the Vatican not to “surrender” to Beijing, saying that making such a deal would be “destroying the Church”.

Nothing is officially confirmed yet, but there have been several recent indications that the Holy See wants to press towards an agreement with Beijing. The news agency Reuters claims to have spoken to Vatican sources who believe a deal is imminent. Similar rumours abound in the Catholic and secular press. This week’s Vatican warning to the underground Church not to ordain bishops without permission may also indicate that Rome is hoping for a compromise with the Chinese authorities.

Meanwhile, the Global Times, a semi-official publication of the Chinese Communist Party, has sounded hopeful about a possible deal, running an enthusiastic story headlined: “Under Pope Francis and President Xi, hopes rise for a thaw in ties.”

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