After decades of tensions, the Vatican and China have signed a "provisional agreement" on the appointment of bishops.
The deal — signed in Beijing by deputy foreign ministers on both sides — gives the Holy See a say in naming of bishops, and grants the pope veto power over candidates.
Beijing had long insisted that it must approve appointments of bishops in China, and that insistence has stymied improved relations between the two sides.
Since China turned Communist, its 12 million Catholics have been divided between a state-approved church and an underground church loyal to the Vatican.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports for our Newscast unit that "the historic move could pave the way to formal diplomatic ties but it will also anger many Chinese Catholics as a sellout to the Communist government."
"The Vatican said Pope Francis had recognized the legitimacy of seven state-appointed bishops and said he hopes the deal 'will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome' and lead to full Chinese Catholic unity," Poggioli reports.
She adds, "many underground Chinese Catholics fear greater suppression if the Vatican cedes more control to Beijing. Other Catholics see the accord as a rapprochement that will avert a potential schism."
The deal was announced Saturday while Pope Francis was visiting the Baltics.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, told reporters the aim of the accord "is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities," The Associated Press reports.
Besides warming diplomatic efforts, the agreement could pave the way for a papal trip to China.
The New York Times reports "Pope Francis has for years talked about his desire to visit China, where Roman Catholicism has steadily lost ground in the face of intensifying crackdowns and surveillance on religious groups under President Xi Jinping. Protestants, whose faith is spreading fast around the country, have largely eclipsed the percentage in China of Catholics."