ROME – Though it didn’t make global headlines, an important meeting transpired in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday: Vietnamese President Võ Văn Thưởng made a visit to the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, praising the role of the church during the Covid-19 pandemic, speaking in warm terms of his recent meeting with Pope Francis and vowing to consider the possibility of opening Catholic schools.

Given the historic hostility between Church and state in Vietnam since 1975, observers say the visit represented an important step towards rapprochement.

The visit drew prominent coverage by Vatican News as well as the state-run media platform, and is likely to be taken as further confirmation that the Vatican’s policy of “small steps” with Asia’s officially communist states is working – a conclusion, most observers believe, with clear relevance for the Vatican’s relationship with China too.

Văn Thưởng made the visit to the headquarters of the bishops’ conference with a delegation of ten government officials, while the Church side was composed of nine bishops, including Archbishop Joseph Nguyễn Năng of Ho Chi Minh City, who also serves as president of the conference, along with five priests and two religious sisters.

A statement from the bishops afterwards described the meeting, which last roughly an hour and a half, as “open” and “sincere.”

Văn Thưởng’s apparent willingness to consider the situation of Catholic schools was seen as especially important. After Vietnam was unified under communist rule in 1975, the Church has been allowed only to run daycare centers, but not elementary, middle or high schools.

In 2016, the first Catholic university since the communist take-over was opened with the approval of both the Vatican and the national government.

There are an estimated seven million Catholics in Vietnam, representing roughly seven percent of the country’s total population. The church has 3,000 parishes across the country, 7,700 other facilities, and 11 seminaries served by 8,000 priests and 41 active bishops.

The visit to the bishops’ conference comes on the heels of a July 23-28 trip to Europe by Văn Thưởng, which included state visits to both Austria and Italy as well as a meeting with Pope Francis and other senior Vatican officials on July 27.

During that encounter, Vietnam and the Vatican announced an accord allowing for the appointment of a resident pontifical representative in the country. Although the agreement falls short of full diplomatic relations, it’s considered an important step in that direction. The Vatican has had a non-resident representative to Vietnam since 2011, under Pope Benedict XVI.

According to the Vatican News account, Văn Thưởng told the bishops he had been favorably impressed by his meeting with the pope, beginning with the fact that it went longer than anticipated and also that he was able to bring his wife to meet the pontiff.

Văn Thưởng said that the pope had stressed the importance of human fraternity, and also the necessity of dialogue and reciprocal listening. During his session with the bishops, they presented Văn Thưởng with a framed photo of his encounter with Pope Francis and also a Vietnamese translation of the pontiff’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti.

The gradual thaw in Vatican-Vietnam relations dates to 1989, when French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, at the time the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, made the first visit by a senior Vatican official to the country since 1975.

Beginning in 1996, the Vatican and the Vietnamese government began holding regular bilateral meetings, in part to resolve difficulties over the appointment of Catholic bishops in the country. In the end, a deal was struck by which the Vatican submits three names for a bishop’s post and the Vietnamese authorities pick one, whose nomination is then formalized by the pope.

That agreement was negotiated in part by then-Monsignor Pietro Parolin, at the time the Vatican’s under-secretary for relations with states, who is today the Cardinal Secretary of State and principal architect of the Vatican’s China strategy.

In announcing the new agreement on a resident papal representative, the two sides said part of his role will be to support “the Vietnamese Catholic community in its commitments in the spirit of the law, and, always inspired by the magisterium of the church, to fulfill its vocation to ‘accompany the nation’ and to be ‘good citizens and good Catholics’.”