Since Pope FrancisPope FrancisPope Francis swipes at groups protesting COVID-19 restrictions in NYT op-ed China dismisses pope's comments about 'persecuted' Uighurs Pope Francis supports NBA players' work to promote social justice MORE stepped onto the world stage, he's been given rock-star status by Catholics, Christians and skeptics alike. Even the media love him for paying attention to the Fourth Estate and going off script by giving non-Vatican approved interviews.


He's put himself out there in a way that few of his predecessors have. And now, he's the broker of a world-changing deal between President Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro. For the first time in 50 years, the U.S. is normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba — a country that is more than half Catholic — and will open an embassy in Havana. Why didn't the deal fall apart? Because Pope Francis promised both sides would live up to commitments.

Talk about transcending geopolitical differences. The pope has gone from the new face of Catholicism to an astute political player.

It hasn't always been so that the highest-ranking Catholic wielded so much influence. When Pope Pius XII thought Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin should stop repressing Catholics, Stalin famously asked, "The pope? How many divisions has he got?" It turns out this pope doesn't need any divisions to tangle with communists. He has something better: His word.

Up until now, Pope Francis's scope of authority has centered on social issues. Yet, thanks to his well-accepted authority as a moral beacon, and, one has to presume, his high likeability quotient, he was able to help broker a deal simply based on a verbal promise that ultimately, he couldn't really enforce.

Whether you think it's a good idea or not for Cuba and the U.S. to become cozy bedfellows, this magnifies the foreign policy role he has already undertaken. And the press is just waking up to his elevated negotiator status.

This is not Pope Francis's first toe-dipping into mending worldwide fences. In 2013, he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling for him to oppose an military intervention in Syria. In May, he hosted Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pray for peace. This summer, he sent a telegram to China's president when the country allowed the papal plane to cross into Chinese airspace — something others haven't been able to accomplish.

Up until now, it was Pope John Paul II who influenced geopolitics in a grand way. He established diplomatic relations with Israel. The pope and President Reagan established diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See. Prominent journalists recognized him as a key force in ending the Cold War. In 1992, Carl Bernstein wrote a TIME magazine cover story called "The Holy Alliance," reporting on the clandestine campaign Reagan and the pope undertook to free Poland from communism, which began the collapse of the Soviet empire.

It doesn't always happen that a U.S. leader strikes such a powerful alliance with the Holy See. President Nixon visited China in 1972, launching the beginning of normalized relations. In 1994, President Clinton, a former anti-Vietnam War activist (draft dodger?), lifted a 19-year-old trade embargo with Vietnam. No popes there.

President Obama and Pope Francis agree on more than just Cuba. Both are staunch advocates of fixing income inequality. The pope says he wants a church that "is poor and for the poor." His deep belief in Catholic social justice teachings, combined with his love for the poor, put him firmly planted in Obama's immigration amnesty camp. Can we expect more from him on these issues? You betcha.

The president is exiting stage left in two years. Meanwhile, this pope, who never set sights on being a leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, will most likely will be around for much longer, wielding his ever-growing foreign policy prowess.

Ashburn is an award-winning Washington-based reporter and TV analyst covering media and politics.