The new cardinal from Hong Kong said Thursday that he wants to "keep the door open" between the Vatican and the Chinese government while acknowledging there are "lots of battles" ahead for the Catholic church.
Bishop John Tong says he wants to keep up dialogue and friendships without renouncing principles, noting the United States has not compromised its positions on human rights with its reception this week for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.
He said in an interview with The Associated Press that he sees his role as "a bridge" for the church in China. Beijing severed ties with the Holy See in 1951 after the Communist party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority.
The sprightly 72-year-old is in Rome as one of 22 prelates who will be formally installed as cardinals in a Vatican ceremony Saturday.
Pope Benedict XVI has given priority to improving relations with China, but there has been no breakthrough as Beijing has repeatedly challenged the Vatican by allowing the state-sanctioned Catholic church to appoint bishops who have not been approved by the pope.
The problem of bishops is the main stumbling bloc to any normalization of relations, although Beijing also insists that the Vatican sever ties with Taiwan.
Tong's predecessor in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who is still active, was an outspoken critic of China's human rights records. During a visit to New York last year, Zen described the standoff over bishops as "a war."
Tong attended the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 at the government's invitation but said he has turned down some other high-profile requests.
Tong insisted he has no policy differences with Zen, although they may have different approaches.
"My role is to keep the door open and to be on a friendship with the Chinese officials, so that I would try to pass the message of the Holy See to the Chinese government. At the same time I can also bring their expectations to the Holy See, if possible," he said, taking questions in a small conference room of a residence for visiting clergy near St. Peter's Square.
The cardinal acknowledged the road ahead would not be easy. "We face a lot of challenges, lots of battles," he said.
He noted China's vice president "is being received well in the United States. I think that the Americans are not sacrificing their principles regarding human rights, regarding various important (issues), yet Americans are welcoming him" and intend to make their points.
He said the possibility of a visit to China by Benedict was at this point only "a dream" but disclosed that such ideas are not dismissed outright at the Vatican.
Benedict's predecessor Pope John Paul II had hoped to meet with assembled Asians bishops in Hong Kong. But officials there blocked it because China and the Vatican had no formal relations. The meeting that John Paul attended was held in New Delhi instead, in 1999.