BEIJING - In a sign of a thaw in relations between China's communist authorities and the Vatican, China yesterday ordained as a bishop a 43-year-old priest who has publicly declared his fidelity to the pope, four days after consecrating another Vatican-approved bishop.

The ordination of Joseph Gan Junqiu as bishop of the Diocese of Guangzhou in the south and Friday's promotion of Bishop Lu Shouwang in the central province of Hubei signal improving relations between Beijing and Rome after a strained period last year when three bishops were consecrated without the Vatican's approval.

While Chinese officials denied they consulted Rome, insisting the promotions were China's choice, experts said unofficial channels of communication had been opened.

"The arrangement is accepted by both sides right now, and both sides want to weaken any conflict," said Ren Yanli, a senior researcher at the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "But that doesn't mean China will always select approved bishops in the future."

In Guangzhou, police used metal barricades to guard the Sacred Heart Cathedral, where only invited guests attended Gan's ordination, the Associated Press reported.

Gan, who has studied in Belgium and France, emerged after a 21/2-hour ceremony that was closed to reporters and mingled with clergy and parishioners on the steps of the church.

"China is willing to . . . conduct a constructive dialogue with the Vatican so as to explore ways to improve our relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

China's estimated eight million to 12 million Catholics attend both official state-sanctioned churches and an underground church whose leaders answer only to the pope.