Following the news that the United States would begin to thaw its frozen relations with Cuba, some even more startling news surfaced: Pope Francis brought Cuba and the United States together. According to the Vatican, Francis played a key role in fostering the new relationship between the two nations, which have been at a diplomatic standstill since the early 1960s. Without the help of the Holy See, it looks like the reconciliation between Cuba and the United States maybe wouldn't have come for another five decades.
Cardinal Parolin, who serves as the pope's Secretary of State, said in an interview with Vatican Radio that Francis had a "very significant" role in Wednesday's historic announcement. Francis, who's the first Latin American pope in Catholic Church history, reportedly wrote letters to both President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro last summer, inching the two leaders closer to conciliation.
In this case, the Holy See has tried to facilitate the dialogue between the two parties according to the, let’s say, the objective that the Holy Father Pope Francis has given to the diplomacy of the Holy See. Which is of course traditional in its history, but now he has [a] new accent [emphasis] because of the situation, the particular situation of our world – which is to build bridges between persons and groups and nations. And then it was, let’s say, a service of facilitating and of promoting the dialogue between the two parties.
The cardinal emphasized this action was part of Francis' "culture of encounter" philosophy, which stresses the importance of bringing "the person and the groups and people...together." Parolin added that both Obama and Castro showed much "courage" in their willingness to meet and come to what the Vatican considers a humanitarian decision.
But Francis' involvement didn't end with the letters. From the moment his ascended to the papacy, Francis has reportedly urged Obama and Castro to repair their relationship as a humanitarian effort. According to the Vatican, Francis set up secret, in-person meetings between the two nations, lasting for 18 months. In March, when Obama traveled to Rome to meet with Francis face-to-face, the pair reportedly discussed the Cuban negotiations.
A senior Vatican official reportedly hosted the two delegations in Vatican offices for their final meeting in October "to facilitate a
constructive dialogue on delicate matters." The Vatican said in a statement on Wednesday the delegates discussed releasing prisoners in both countries, including U.S. contractor Alan Gross.
Francis applauded the renewed relationship between Cuba and the United States in a statement, saying the new relations would overcome "in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history." The pontiff said he would continue to support both nations and their future initiatives "to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the well-being of their respective citizens."
In his Wednesday address, Obama personally thanked Francis for facilitating Gross' release and repairing relations between the two nations:
I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.
Wednesday wasn't just a good day for Francis because he effectively ended a 50-year Cold War-era grudge and proved that he's a more efficient diplomat than most world leaders: It was also his 78th birthday. Fortunately, he was able to enjoy some birthday cake, balloons and Argentine tango while walking through St. Peter's Square on his way to help Rome's homeless community.
Francis' role in Cuba doesn't seem to be over. Earlier this week, the pontiff urged Obama to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay — a plea that the pontiff has now made his primary goal moving forward. Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi told reporters on Wednesday that the Vatican will "find adequate humanitarian solutions through our international contacts" for current GITMO detainees.