The China Factor: Francis Declines Meeting With Dalai Lama

The Pope’s decision likely was made in order to avoid complicating the Vatican’s relations with the People’s Republic of China.

'Underground' Chinese Catholics processing at the Shrine for Our Lady of China in Dong Lu, prior to the shrine's destruction in 1996 by the Chinese government.
'Underground' Chinese Catholics processing at the Shrine for Our Lady of China in Dong Lu, prior to the shrine's destruction in 1996 by the Chinese government. (photo:

VATICAN CITY — Following the reception of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize by two south Asians last week, Pope Francis praised Nobel laureates’ efforts for peace but chose not to meet with the Dalai Lama, who won the prize in 1989.

The Pope likely declined to meet with Tenzin Gyatso, who is the 14th Dalai Lama, so as not to complicate the Vatican’s relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, sent a message to the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates stating that Pope Francis is “deeply grateful for the commitment of the summit participants to promoting peace and fraternity among peoples and for their efforts in finding solutions to the conflicts of our day.”

The Dalai Lama participated in the summit and requested a meeting with the Pope. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Holy See press officer, said the Pope “is not meeting any of the Nobel laureates,” but, “obviously, has very high regard for the Dalai Lama.”

The leader of Tibetan Buddhism has lived in exile from mainland China since 1959, and the Pope’s decision not to meet with him suggests a wish not to exacerbate relations between the Holy See and Beijing.

With his dream of being the first pope to visit China, Pope Francis has pursued warmer relations with the country under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who became president the day following Francis’ election as bishop of Rome.

Xi signaled he is open to a thaw in relations when, as the first Chinese president to do so, he responded in written form to the wishes Pope Francis sent him after his election.

After that, for the first time in history, China allowed a papal flight to utilize its air space, en route to South Korea, which the Pope visited Aug. 13-18.


Difficult Relationship

The Vatican and China are at odds over the situation of the Church in the People’s Republic.

It is split between the Patriotic Association, an official organization that answers to the country’s communist party, and an “underground Church,” faithful to the Pope, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are often not acknowledged by Chinese authorities.

In the press conference he held on his flight back from South Korea, Pope Francis showed his wish to visit China, affirming he would have gone there “even tomorrow morning.”

Pope Francis also mentioned the letter Benedict XVI sent in 2007 to Catholics in China, describing it as a “milestone.”

The letter opened a way for dialogue with the authorities, while maintaining firmness on the principles of the Church’s pastoral autonomy: After its publication, there had been signs of thaw between the Holy See and Beijing, which led to priestly ordinations with the twofold approval of Rome and Beijing.

Relations have, however, fluctuated in the course of the last few years, and now they have seemingly come to a sort of interlocutory phase, in which Vatican diplomacy is very attentive to any gestures that would distance the two parties again.

It is noteworthy that the Dalai Lama had his last meeting with a pope in October 2006, when he met Benedict XVI in a private audience.

Then Benedict XVI sent the letter to the Chinese Catholics in 2007, and the relations with China began fluctuating.

The Dalai Lama was back in Rome in 2007 and 2009, and on both the occasions, he sought another meeting. The Secretariat of State declined the requests, presumably for the same reasons it has not consented this time.