By David Willey
BBC News, Rome
Pope Benedict has addressed a message of reconciliation to millions of his faithful in China, whose loyalties are divided between Rome and Beijing.
Worship is only allowed in the officially tolerated Patriotic Church
"No-one in the Church is a foreigner," the Pope says in his message.
He is trying to put order among a small but growing community of often confused Christians in a vast country with its own ancient religious traditions
He is up against a state political ideology of atheism and half a century of sporadic persecution of Catholics.
Chinese Catholics are at present split between the so-called Patriotic Church, tolerated by Beijing, and an underground Church which remains loyal to Rome.
In an effort to bring order to this chaotic situation, and to improve the prospects of a return to normal diplomatic relations with Beijing which were broken off in 1951, the Pope goes out of his way in his message to praise the recent social and economic achievements of the Chinese people.
He offers sincere dialogue with the civil authorities, in a spirit of friendship and peace.
It remains to be seen, however, just how his message is going to be received in Beijing.
Need for new blood
In his letter, Pope Benedict points out that underground activities do not form part of the normal life of the Catholic Church.
The Pope's letter was released on Saturday
He also stresses that Rome has already accepted the full authority of many of the bishops appointed unilaterally by the Beijing-tolerated Church.
As far as the Vatican is concerned, he says, there is only one Catholic Church in China.
The Pope studiously avoids the use of the term Patriotic Church in his 28-page letter.
New statistics about the Church in China, provided by the Vatican, illustrate the gravity of the current dilemma faced by Rome in trying to reorganise a divided Church whose hierarchy is dying out.
Sixty out of the approximately 100 Chinese Catholic bishops are currently over the age of 80 and about half of their present number have died during the past seven years.
So the appointment of a new, younger Church hierarchy in China, with the consent of the Beijing authorities, is a matter of extreme urgency for the survival of the Catholic Church in the world's most populous nation.