Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, visited Beijing's National Catholic Seminary on Wednesday.
After a brief meeting with faculty and students, he was entertained at length by excommunicated Bishop Ma Yinglin, who was unlawfully ordained bishop of Kunming in 2006.
A long-time protégé of the powerful Liu Bainian, honorary president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), he has also risen to the top of official Church of China.
Currently, he is serving as president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops' Conference (which is not recognised by the Catholic Church), and vice president-chairman of the CPCA (which is incompatible with Catholic doctrine).
Thanks to certain backers, he had himself appointed rector of Beijing's Catholic Seminary.
With all these high-sounding titles, Ma Yinglin welcomed the illustrious guest at the entrance of the seminary, taking him personally on a tour of the school. He explained to him the situation of the Catholic Church in China, and asked Metropolitan Hilarion to "convey his greetings" to Patriarch Kirill, as if from one patriarch to another.
Liu Bainian had hoped to see Ma become the bishop of Beijing (and give him the title of Eastern Patriarch), but the Church in the capital snubbed him, and chose someone else.
With all these titles, Ma Yinglin is spending more time in Beijing than in his diocese, where most of the faithful turn away when they see him or leave the church whenever he shows up.
Despite his excommunication, Ma Yinglin has not stopped trying to participate in Episcopal ordinations, even when he is not invited. His aim is to assert, excommunicated or not, that he is entitled to a place among the bishops.
Hilarion is not without his own frustrations. For years, Russian Orthodox have tried to have their small community recognised. They have tried to get the support of Russia. It is not pure coincidence that Hilarion's visit comes a few weeks after Vladimir Putin was in the Chinese capital for the signing of trading and partnership agreements between Russia and China.
Although a Russian-Chinese advisory group was set up a year ago to vet the issue, there has been no movement in the issue so far.
The photos taken during the visit, posted on the Moscow patriarchate website, betray Hilarion's frustration and embarrassment.
In one, the metropolitan is seen sitting on one side and Ma Yinglin on the other, with some drinks (mineral water and tea), a flower display and a plate with a smiling Benedict XVI on a coffee table, in between. No message could be clearer: We are thinking about you. We have not forgotten you. You are one of us; we are with you.
The photo conveys a degree of contempt for the pope's authority.
Indeed, Ma Yinglin appears to prefer a silent image of Benedict XVI to the words of the Holy See. When the Vatican wrote to him, urging him not to accept his ordination, he turned a deaf ear.
Hilarion, who played music for Benedict XVI during a visit to the Vatican in 2009, has forgotten that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are 'sister Churches'.
Dealing with an excommunicated bishop is not a sign of communion.
What Hilarion and the Moscow Patriarchate are trying to do is to obtain China's recognition before the Patriarchate of Constantinople does.
Based in Hong Kong, the latter is trying to establish relations with all Orthodox communities in the People's Republic and the Far East.
This explains why Hilarion and Ma Yinglin have to put Benedict XVI out of their mind, even a silent one, and why the close-up of their photo does not show the pope but two plates with red watermelon.