In a lengthy message to Chinese Catholics, Pope Francis said a new deal between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops is a step toward bettering their relations, and as such, requires the support from faithful on the ground.

While assuring of his prayer and admiration for Catholics who have suffered persecution under the Chinese Communist Party, including jail time and house arrest, the pope offered no specifics on what the deal entails, leaving many still unanswered questions hanging in peoples’ minds.

In his message, published Sept. 26, Francis said the agreement, which is provisional, is “limited to certain aspects of the Church’s life and necessarily capable of improvement,” yet it also contributes “to writing this new chapter of the Catholic Church in China.”

“For the first time, the Agreement sets out stable elements of cooperation between the state authorities and the Apostolic See, in the hope of providing the Catholic community with good shepherds. In this context, the Holy See intends fully to play its own part,” he said.

Yet while the deal is between Chinese authorities and the Holy See, Francis said the bishops, priests, consecrated persons, and laity also have an important role in helping to find candidates for the episcopate who are “capable of taking up in the Church the demanding and important ministry of bishop.”

“It is not a question of appointing functionaries to deal with religious issues, but of finding authentic shepherds according to the heart of Jesus, men committed to working generously in the service of God’s people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable,” he said.

While the agreement is clearly “an instrument, and not of itself capable of resolving all existing problems,” it will be unproductive, he said, unless there is a “deep commitment” to renewing both personal attitudes, and ecclesial conduct.

The agreement between China and the Vatican was signed Saturday morning in Beijing by Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, Undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, and Wang Chao, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, and their respective delegations.

At the same time the Vatican announced it would be lifting the excommunication of seven bishops who had been ordained without the pope’s authority, meaning that for the first time, all bishops in China are now approved by the Holy See. However, what will happen to the underground bishops is still unknown.

Since the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the Catholic Church in the country has been divided between an “official” church that is registered and cooperates with the government, and an “underground” church which resists its control.

In his message, Francis said that since the beginning of his pontificate, he has experienced the “great consolation” in knowing of the deep desire for Chinese Catholics to live their faith in full communion with Rome.

In the five years he has been in office, Francis said he has received numerous signs and testimonies, “including from bishops who have damaged communion in the Church as a result of weakness and errors, but also, and not infrequently, due to powerful and undue pressure from without.”

With this in mind, the pope said he made a careful evaluation of the seven formerly excommunicated bishops and their personal situations, listened to advice from different sides, and dedicated significant time to prayer before choosing to reconcile the seven with Rome, bringing them into full communion.

He said he has also asked these bishops “to express with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity with the Apostolic See and with the Churches spread throughout the world, and to remain faithful despite any difficulties.”

Noting how news of the deal has been met with a variety of reactions, some positive and some critical, with many questioning the future of Catholic communities in China, Pope Francis said he is aware that “that this flurry of thoughts and opinions may have caused a certain confusion and prompted different reactions in the hearts of many.”

“Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter. In many others, there prevail positive expectations and reflections inspired by the hope of a more serene future for a fruitful witness to the faith in China.”

These feelings have become more acute with the announcement with the agreement, he said, and voiced his “heartfelt feelings” of thanksgiving and “sincere admiration” for what Catholics in China have endured, and for their fidelity to the Church in spite of difficulty.

“These painful experiences are part of the spiritual treasury of the Church in China and of all God’s pilgrim people on earth,” he said, adding that God, “through the crucible of our trials, never fails to pour out his consolations upon us and to prepare us for an even greater joy.”

Francis also spoke of the importance of dialogue, saying the provisional agreement with China is in continuity with his predecessors and is the result of a “lengthy and complex” institutional back-and-forth between the Holy See and China that began with St. John Paul II.

He stressed that the deal has spiritual and pastoral aims, rather than political, and is meant to “support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China.”

For evangelization to be effective in the nation, the question of bishops had to be resolved, he said, noting that the Catholic Church in China has a history marked by “deep and painful tensions, hurts and divisions,” particularly in regard to bishops, who is “the guardian of the authenticity of the faith and as guarantor of ecclesial communion.”

The resulting rise of the clandestine Church, he said, is abnormal, invited all Chinese Catholics to work towards reconciliation.

On a pastoral level, he said the Chinese Catholic is called “to be united, so as to overcome the divisions of the past that have caused, and continue to cause, great suffering in the hearts of many pastors and faithful.”

All Christians, with no exception, must work concretely work toward reconciliation and communion, he said, adding that on a political and civil level, Chinese Catholics must also be “good citizens” who serve their homeland “with diligence and honesty, to the best of their ability.”

On the ethical level, Catholics are expected by fellow citizens to have “a greater commitment to the service of the common good and the harmonious growth of society as a whole.”

At times, he said, doing this might allow them to make certain criticisms, “not out of sterile opposition, but for the sake of building a society that is more just, humane and respectful of the dignity of each person.”

Francis offered a special message to bishops, priests and consecrated persons, telling them to leave behind past conflicts and personal interests, and to instead focus on charity and service to their people.

He urged them to work for unity, and to “beg for the grace not to hesitate when the Spirit calls us to take a step forward.”

Speaking to Chinese youth, who as the result of a recent government crackdown on religion are currently banned from entering a church if they are under 18, the pope asked them to work toward building a better future for their country, and to bring the “the joy of the Gospel to everyone you meet.”

“Be ready to accept the sure guidance of the Holy Spirit, who shows today’s world the path to reconciliation and peace,” he said, and told them not to be afraid to listen to God’s voice, which calls them to “fraternity, encounter, capacity for dialogue and forgiveness, and a spirit of service, regardless of the painful experiences of the recent past and wounds not yet healed.”

In words to Chinese leaders themselves, Pope Francis encouraged them to continue with “trust, courage and farsightedness” the dialogue they are currently pursuing.

He assured them of the Holy See’s commitment to working for “genuine friendship” with the Chinese people. The new deal, he said, is “proving useful for overcoming past differences, even those of the more recent past, and for opening a new chapter of more serene and practical cooperation, in the shared conviction that incomprehension [serves] the interests of neither the Chinese people nor the Catholic Church in China.”

By maintaining this relationship, both China and the Holy See, he said, will be able to “act more positively for the orderly and harmonious growth of the Catholic community in China,” and will contribute more to the development of society as a whole, to the human person and to religion.

Francis also called for relations between ecclesial leaders on a local level to be “more productive through frank dialogue and impartial listening, so as to overcome antagonism on both sides.”

“A new style of straightforward daily cooperation needs to develop between local authorities and ecclesiastical authorities - bishops, priests and community elders - in order to ensure that pastoral activities take place in an orderly manner, in harmony with the legitimate expectations of the faithful and the decisions of competent authorities,” he said.

“This will help make it clear that the Church in China is not oblivious to Chinese history, nor does she seek any privilege. Her aim in the dialogue with civil authorities is that of building a relationship based on mutual respect and deeper understanding.”