Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Thursday afternoon. The meeting kicked off the process of establishing official diplomatic relations between the communist country and the Holy See, to the delight of Vietnamese Catholics. From Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more.

The half-hour meeting Thursday between Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican was the first ever between a Vietnamese leader and the spiritual leader of the world's Catholics.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said in Hanoi that during the meeting, the Vatican's Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone proposed establishing full diplomatic relations.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Dung replied that the two sides' diplomatic agencies should begin detailed discussions.

In Vietnam, Father Nguyen Hong Phuc of Phat Diem cathedral said he was overjoyed by the news.

Phuc says he - along with all the Catholics of Vietnam - has been looking forward to this moment for many years. He calls the news "wonderful".

Relations between Hanoi and the Vatican have been tense for decades. When Vietnam was a French colony, many Catholics opposed the Communist Party's military struggle for independence.

In the meeting Thursday, Prime Minister Dung moved to bury those hard feelings.

The Foreign Ministry said he described Vietnam's Catholics as a "God-loving and patriotic community that has made active contributions to national construction and development".

Vietnam's government mandates that it approve the church's candidates for bishop and archbishop.

But the Vatican's Press Office praised the government's progress in "opening new spaces of religious freedom for the Catholic church in Vietnam".