ROME – This week the Vatican’s foreign minister is visiting Vietnam, where he will meet top civil and ecclesial officials amid an ongoing rapprochement process both sides hope will culminate with a papal visit.

According to a schedule posted to the Vatican Secretary of State’s account on social media platform X, previously known as Twitter, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, will be in Vietnam from April 9-14.

He is expected to meet with Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Bui Thanh Son and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chính and is also scheduled to participate in meetings at the Vietnamese Interior Ministry.

Gallagher is also slated to celebrate Mass at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, and he will travel to the ecclesial province of Hue, where he will meet with students of the area’s Major Seminary and celebrate Mass at Hue’s “Phu Cam” cathedral.

During his visit, Gallagher will also travel to the ecclesiastical province of Ho Chi Minh City, where he will celebrate Mass in the city’s Notre Dame Cathedral and meet with members of the Vietnamese bishops’ conference.

His visit to Vietnam comes after a delegation representing the Communist Party of Vietnam visited the Vatican in January, holding private meetings with Pope Francis, Gallagher, and Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

The visit of the delegation and Gallagher’s visit to Vietnam come as Vietnam and the Holy See are making significant strides toward rapprochement, including an agreement struck last year allowing the appointment of a resident papal representative in the country.

Last year’s deal approving the establishment of the Office of the Resident Papal Representative of the Holy See in Vietnam and the approval of naming someone to that post was reached during a visit Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong made to the Vatican in July 2023.

Vietnam and the Holy See have had no formal ties since 1975, when the last Vatican envoy was expelled from the country after the communists took control of South Vietnam.

Ever since, the relationship between Rome and Hanoi has also been seen as a bellwether for the Vatican’s approach to China, which is a key agenda item for Pope Francis.

Both the Vatican and Vietnam have engaged in a decades-long process of rapprochement, and in 2011 Vietnam agreed to let the Vatican appoint a nonresident papal representative, at the time seen as a major step forward in the process to normalize relations.

A three-member Vatican delegation traveled to Vietnam in 2022 in a bid to accelerate the rapprochement process, and last summer those aspirations finally came to fruition with the agreement allowing a resident papal representative.

In December 2023, Polish Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the Vatican’s ambassador to Singapore, was also appointed as papal representative to Vietnam.

Pope Francis in a letter to Vietnamese Catholics in September 2023 voiced hope that the new papal representative would be “a bridge in order to advance reciprocal relations,” and expressed gratitude for Van Thuong’s visit in July of that year.

Although both parties come from “different backgrounds and experiences of life, it did not prevent them from seeking together the best way forward for the good of the Vietnamese people and the Church” in the dialogue process, the pope said.

He underlined the Church’s emphasis on charity and social works, saying the Church’s commitment to helping others allows believers to “live out their own identity as good Christians and good citizens.”

“In this regard, the Catholic faithful can foster dialogue and engender hope for the country whenever conditions favorable to the exercise of religious freedom are implemented,” he said.

Pope Francis also voiced hope that the nations of the world would “come to a fairer realization of one of the cardinal duties deriving from our common nature: namely, that love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations.”

Vietnam currently has the fifth-largest Catholic population in Asia, with an estimated seven million Catholics comprising roughly seven percent of the total population of around 97.5 million. The Church in Vietnam has 3,000 parishes across the country, 7,700 other facilities, and 11 seminaries served by 8,000 priests and 41 active bishops.

An additional 700,000 Vietnamese Catholics live in the United States, many of whom are descendants of refugees who fled by boat during the Vietnam war.

Given Vietnam’s proximity to China and the fact that both are led by communist parties, the Vatican has long sought to use a similar approach to both, striking a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops with Chinese authorities in 2018 that is similar to one the Vatican had struck with Vietnam.

Speaking to journalists on the margins of a press conference in January after the visit of the Vietnamese delegation, Gallagher said Vietnamese officials are eager for a papal visit to the country, and he acknowledged Vietnam’s growing regional influence, calling it “a little bit of an economic miracle.”

He said Vietnam’s attitude toward both the international community and the Church itself have changed, and that the Holy See is encouraging Vietnam to increase assurances of religious freedom, “which they have in their constitution and that they’re practicing, but obviously it’s a work in progress.”

Gallagher said after his own visit, Parolin is expected to travel to Vietnam later this year, continuing the rapprochement process and paving the way for a potential future papal trip.

“We’ll do things gradually, but we’re confident things will move forward,” he said, voicing optimism that a papal trip will happen further down the line.

“I think it will, but there’s a few further steps to be taken before that would be appropriate. I think the Holy Father is keen to go, certainly the Catholic community in Vietnam is very happy to want the Holy Father to go, and I think it would send a very good message to the region,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen