SHANGHAI - It was shaping as a win in the Communist Party's quest to contain a longtime nemesis, the Roman Catholic Church.
In July 2012, a priest named Thaddeus Ma Daqin was to be ordained auxiliary bishop of Shanghai. The Communist body that has governed the church for six decades had angered the Holy See by appointing bishops without Vatican approval. Known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, it was now about to install Ma, one of its own officials, as deputy in China's largest Catholic diocese.
"The anticipation was he would be a yes man," says Jim Mulroney, a priest and editor of the Hong Kong-based Sunday Examiner, a Catholic newspaper.
Instead, standing before a thousand Catholics and government officials at Saint Ignatius Cathedral, Ma spurned the party: It wouldn't be "convenient" for him to remain in the Patriotic Association, he said. Many in the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. People wept. Ma had switched sides - and a crisis was under way.
The priest soon disappeared from public view, instructed by the late bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian to move to a mountainside seminary outside Shanghai, where he has been confined for 20 months. He was stripped of his new title, questioned by officials for weeks and required to attend communist indoctrination classes.
Ma's renunciation of the association forced into the open a struggle that had been playing out for years. The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities: an "official" church answerable to the Party, and an "underground" church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome. The most contentious issue between them is which side controls the ordination of bishops.
There are tentative signs a thaw may be possible. New leaders have been appointed in both the Vatican and China since Ma defied the Patriotic Association.
The Chinese government has privately signalled it could appoint Ma as the next full bishop of Shanghai, a position now vacant, and release two long-jailed bishops loyal to the Vatican, according to a source close to the Holy See. This person said several people had conveyed that message to a Vatican official in private meetings.
Any change in Ma's status is likely to be gradual, the Vatican source said, given opposition from the Shanghai government, still furious over Ma's repudiation of the official church.
The source declined to specify the identities of the people carrying the messages to the Vatican. Since the Vatican and China have no official ties, unofficial emissaries from Beijing pass messages to the Vatican either directly to Rome or through the Vatican's Charge d'Affaires in Hong Kong. The emissaries are in contact with government or Communist Party authorities in China, said Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, from Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, who has previously acted as an unofficial emissary between Rome and Beijing.
"I'm a little positive this time," the Vatican source said. "If this will happen, certainly the Vatican will take some steps for China. After that I think it will be possible to start a dialogue."
China has yet to send any public signal that it is willing to resume a dialogue with the Vatican, and some hardliners in the Catholic Church oppose any accommodation with China.
Beijing's impasse with the Catholic Church also coincides with a broader crackdown against dissident groups - including Christians who go to "house churches", rights lawyers, academics and activists - that have resulted in a spate of trials and detentions.
China's State Administration for Religious Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
"THERE ARE RELATIONS"
Pope Francis has been silent on the standoff, but he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera this month he has exchanged letters with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first acknowledgment of communication since both men took office in late 2012. "There are relations," Francis said, without elaborating on the exchange.
Vatican watchers speculate Francis could visit Beijing this summer during a tour of Asia. If so, it would be the first by a pope to Chinese territory since the Communists took power in 1949. Since then, there have been no bilateral diplomatic relations.
The Vatican's new Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, has also sounded an optimistic note. In February, he told Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, that he is hopeful "trust and understanding among the parties might increase." He added: "This might be concretely realised in the resumption of a constructive dialogue with political authorities" in China.
The Vatican did not respond to requests for comment.
The enduring rupture, however, suggests any end to the standoff over bishop appointments may be a long way off. Ma's rebuff still stings, says Anthony Liu Bainian, the layman who is the honorary chairman of the Patriotic Association.
"He deceived the bishops and cheated the government as well as the public," Liu said in an interview, in his first public remarks on the Ma case. "How can you then take on the responsibility for such a large diocese as Shanghai? This clearly shows that (Ma) was under the influence of foreigners."
Reuters went to Sheshan Seminary and met with Ma, who said that while he is allowed to chat with visitors as part of his pastoral duties, he cannot accept media interviews.