Pope Francis played crucial role in historic thawing of relations between U.S. and Cuba

The first pope to come from Latin America played a major role in some of the biggest news to come out of that region of the world in recent years, a White House source told reporters on Wednesday.

Over the past year, Pope Francis and other members of the Vatican urged both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro to free convicted spies held in their respective prisons and played a key role in helping the countries normalize relations that have been strained since the late 1950s.

After Obama’s meeting with the pope back in March, Pope Francis sent letters to both the U.S. president and Castro, making an appeal to free the remaining three members of the Cuban Five spy group from American jails and U.S. contractor Alan Gross who was held in Cuba.

“The pope can be the trigger and get things started,” Greg Burke, Vatican communications director, told Fox News.

“When Obama met with Pope Francis earlier this year, Cuba was as much of the discussion as anything else,” a senior administration official told reporters during a press call Wednesday. “I would say the particular exchange of prisoners was finalized at the meeting at the Vatican, and we discussed steps of establishing diplomatic relations.”

The Vatican was the only nation directly involved in the talks between the U.S. and Cuba, although Canada did host discussions with the two countries back in the spring of 2013.

Senior Vatican officials hosted delegations from both the U.S. and Cuba in October where the final steps of the talks were finalized, including the prisoner transfers, the normalization of ties and reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

“The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties,” The Vatican said in a press release. “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

Observers of U.S.-Cuban relations pointed to Pope Francis’ commitment to human rights and the historic role that the Vatican has played in resolving major issues in Latin America. In 1979, Pope John Paul II offered to mediate the conflict between Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Channel in the southern part of the South American continent.

“He may be even more prone to activism in regards to Cuba because this is a region of the world that means so much to him,” Susan K. Purcell, the director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, told Fox News Latino. “He may also be very concerned about the human rights question.”

Both Obama and the administration highlighted the importance of the Pope’s appeal to both the U.S. and Cuba in resolving not only the issue of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five, but in helping spur on the major thaw in relations announced by Obama Wednesday afternoon.

“In particular I want to thank his holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be,” Obama said during his speech on Wednesday, “rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”