Several sources familiar with a proposed deal between the Chinese government and the Holy See have said the landmark agreement is not only a possibility, but an “imminent” certainty that could come to fruition as early as this spring.

While no specific timeline has been given for the agreement, “I've heard that it is imminent. And in China, in many areas and environments, it is already taken as a done deal,” Henry Cappello told CNA Feb. 2.

President of the “Caritas in Veritate International” organization, Cappello travels to China on a regular basis to offer training to the country's bishops, and has strong ties with both those approved by the Holy See and those backed by the communist government's Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Cappello was in China two weeks ago, where Joseph Ma Yinglin, the government-backed bishop of Kunming, explained the proposed deal to him.

Without the Vatican's consent, Ma was tapped by the patriotic association to head the diocese in 2006. After his episcopal ordination, Ma’s excommunication was declared by the Vatican, because he was ordained a bishop without approval from Rome. In 2010 he was appointed president of the Chinese patriotic association’s bishops’ conference.

As part of the agreement, which has been widely reported in recent days, the Vatican is expected to officially recognize seven bishops who are out of communion with Rome, including 2-3 bishops, one of which is Ma, whose excommunications have been explicitly declared by the Vatican.

Most notably, the new deal would also apparently outline government and Vatican roles in future episcopal selection.  Reportedly, the details of the deal would have the Vatican proposing names and the Chinese government having the final say over Vatican-vetted candidates.

Cappello said the proposal has already been discussed in China, and he believes “this is the direction that things are going.”

In 1951 Beijing broke official diplomatic ties with the Vatican. Since the 1980s they have loosely cooperated in episcopal appointments, however, the government has also named bishops without Vatican approval.

The result has led to a complicated and tense relationship between the patriotic association and the “underground Church,” which includes priests and bishops who are not recognized by the government.

Many Catholics parishioners and priests who have rejected government control have been imprisoned, harassed and otherwise persecuted.

Currently every bishop recognized by Beijing must be a member of the patriotic association, and many bishops appointed by the Vatican who are not recognized or approved by the Chinese government have faced government persecution.

Many of the Vatican-approved bishops in China are drawing near to the age of 75, when they are required to submit their request for retirement, and many others have died, yet few successors have been named, raising questions as to whether or not a deal might be drawing near.

Regarding the seven bishops who will be recognized should a new agreement come to pass, Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, who has worked with the seven bishops in question through the Caritas in Veritate for the past several years and was in China in July 2017, confirmed the news on the bishops’ proposed approval, saying “if the Vatican is going to accept them and an accord be reached, it's going to be for all of them. ”

Figueiredo, who lives in Rome, travels to China several times a year with Caritas in Veritate, said he has worked closely with the seven bishops in question, and “they have desired this communion for years.”

He personally delivered a letter from the bishops to the Pope in 2016, which he says told the Pope they wanted communion with Rome.

“They didn't propose the deal, certainly not in the letter they gave me, because that's what's come afterwards,” he said, noting that the Vatican has on several occasions sent a delegation to Beijing to discuss the details of a possible agreement.

Figueiredo said the deal could come within the next few months, saying “I think it could well come this spring, absolutely.”

For his part, Cappello said he could neither confirm nor deny any specific details of the agreement, but that as of two weeks ago during his visit to China, “we are talking in the right direction” in terms of what's already been reported.

He said that in his view, to say China would have the final say in bishop appointments oversimplifies the matter, because the Church in China is complicated and nuanced due to its relations with a communist state.

“The Chinese bishops in China would have a big say, but knowing that the Church in China is in a communist nation, then the Church and the State, the line between them is very narrow,” he said.

“There's really no black and white, there's overlap there, so of course there would be an input from the will be a collaboration,” Cappello said.

And as someone that has traveled back and forth to various provinces in China for the past 25 years, he said he has seen progress he calls remarkable, in terms of relations in the past decade, and during the past five years in particular.

With this deal, Pope Francis “is building bridges,” he said, adding that he believes the stronger and more vocal opponents of the accord “are on the wrong side of history.”

One of the most outspoken critics of a deal with the Chinese government has been Cardinal Joseph Zen, Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong.

Zen was ordained a priest in 1961 and became a bishop in 1996. He has spent a long missionary career in China, and has long been a vocal protester against human-rights abuses in China.

His concerns have grown so great that he recently traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Francis about the proposed deal, after the Vatican asked Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou in southern Guangdong province and Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin from the Mindong Diocese of China’s eastern Fujian province to retire so that bishops from the patriotic association could take their place.

In a letter posted to his blog Jan. 29, Cardinal Zen said that while his meeting with the Pope last week was consoling, he believes “the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China...if they go in the direction which is obvious from all what they are doing in recent years and months.”

He implied that Francis was unfamiliar with the situation, and questioned whether there could be any mutual ground with “a totalitarian regime,” comparing this to a hypothetical agreement between St. Joseph and King Herod. He said that if the agreement that comes out is a poor one, “I would be more than happy to be the obstacle.”

The Vatican immediately responded, and in a Jan. 30 statement said Francis is well-informed of the dialogue with China, so “it is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy.”

In a Jan. 31 interview with Italian paper La Stampa , Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin spoke of the proposed deal, and, though he didn't mention Zen's comments specifically, said “no one should cling to the spirit of opposition to condemn his brother or use the past as an excuse to stir up new resentments and closures.”

On the deal, he said that “if someone is asked to make a sacrifice, small or great, it must be clear to everyone that this is not the price of a political exchange, but falls within the evangelical perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ”

Figueriedo told CNA he believes the Vatican was quick to counter Zen in order to protect the deal, because “it really takes just one person on the Chinese side to say 'you shouldn't go ahead,'” which he says has happened in the past.

Should a deal come to fruition, Cappello said he hoped it would help normalize life for Catholic faithful and allow priests, bishops and seminarians to receive much needed formation.

China is extremely complex, he said, explaining that the Vatican has reached a point of understanding the nation which is both “encouraging and remarkable.”

However, he said there are real reasons for concern based on past events, and that any agreement is something that those on both sides will need to grow into.

CNA reached out to the Vatican for confirmation, however, they declined to comment on the situation.