Just over three years ago the Holy See suffered a major diplomatic blow when Ireland decided to close its Vatican embassy.
The decision was taken ostensibly for financial reasons although came amid fierce criticisms by Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, of the Vatican’s handling of clerical sexual abuse.
While there were specific circumstances leading to the Irish embassy’s closure (now re-opened) the incident raised serious concerns about why countries had diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
In Rome the news of the closure was greeted with alarm as it might have led other countries to do the same thing.
Critics of the Church have also questioned why the Vatican needed to exist as a state, operating a network of embassies across the world and claiming the privileges that come with that.
But the news of Pope Francis’ role in bringing about a new chapter in relations between the United States and Cuba demonstrates compellingly what Holy See diplomacy is able to achieve.
Even the White House has acknowledged that Francis’ intervention was critical in helping to end the diplomatic impasse between the countries that has gone on for over half a century.
This is a major diplomatic coup for the Pope and a part was clearly played by Cardinal Pietro Parolin who, before becoming Secretary of State, was nuncio to Venezuela, traditionally a close ally of Cuba’s.
The diplomacy of the Holy See is that of soft power: urging countries to work for peace.
Diplomats have long seen it as an important listening post thanks to its global reach and presence in far-flung areas. Nuncios – papal ambassadors – will often stay in countries affected by war when other diplomatic representatives have fled for safety.
Since his election Francis appears to have restored the confidence of the Holy See as an agent for good on the world stage.
He was quick to organise a peace vigil for Syria on the eve of the proposed Western intervention in the country, and his visit to the Holy Land resulted in a Vatican meeting with Israeli and Palestinian presidents.
These might be seen as symbolic gestures but the US-Cuba event is significant because it shows how the Church can make a concrete difference to the world.
As President Barack Obama said in a televised address after the news was made public: "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."
Above: Pope Francis told new ambassadors to Holy See on Thursday of his joy at the decision by the US and Cuba to restore diplomatic ties after half a century. Photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters