The Vatican played a critical role behind a prisoner exchange and a groundbreaking new policy between U.S. and Cuba announced on Wednesday, senior administration officials said. “Very importantly, the Vatican played a role in this as well,” a senior administration official said in a White House conference call with reporters on the prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Cuba, and the opening of new relations between the two. Pope Francis made a personal appeal to the presidents of both countries in a letter asking them to “resolve the case of Alan Gross and the case of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” the official added. The White House announced a prisoner exchange with Cuba on Wednesday, as well as a historic shift in the relationship between the countries, which for decades has been marked by an embargo and lack of formal diplomatic relations. Plans are in place for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to begin talking to Cuba “on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations” for the first time since 1961, the White House said. Also in the works is a new U.S. embassy in Havana and “high-level” visits to the country. The countries will try to work together to fight Ebola, and on issues of migration, counter-terrorism, and drug-trafficking, a senior administration official explained. They “fully expect” there to be “strong differences” between the countries, but the Obama administration believes that “engagement is a better tool than isolation.” The U.S. will continue to push for better human rights in Cuba, the administration officials maintained. The new policy is “not lessening our emphasis on human rights, on democracy,” one official said, adding, “Our emphasis on human rights will be just as strong and we believe more effective under this policy.” Regarding the prisoner exchange, Cuba released Alan Gross, an American imprisoned there for five years, on “humanitarian grounds,” as well as an unidentified intelligence “asset” who was held there for 20 years, a senior administration official confirmed. In return, the U.S. released three Cuban prisoners. The prisoner swap was finalized at the Vatican, a senior administration official confirmed. Senior Vatican officials hosted delegations from both countries “this fall.” “The Support of Pope Francis and the support of the Vatican was important to us given the esteem with which both the American and Cuban people hold the Catholic Church,” one official stated, noting that Francis was also the first Pope hailing from Latin America. “President Obama has enormous respect for Pope Francis and his personal engagement was important to us,” the official continued. A meeting between the Pope and U.S. President Barack Obama also served as the starting point for Francis’ personal appeal, an official said, noting that “Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else.” Pope Francis followed up that meeting with a letter to President Obama as well as a direct appeal to Cuban President Raul Castro. The appeal was “very rare,” one official acknowledged. “We haven’t received communications like this that I’m aware of.” The Vatican was the “only other government that participated in these discussions,” an official confirmed. In his announcement of the prisoner exchange and new diplomatic relations, Obama personally thanked Pope Francis for his involvement, saying that the pontiff sees “the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”

The Vatican Secretariat of State release a communique Wednesday relating Pope Francis' "warm congratulations" for the decision "to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history."

It noted that the Pope had, "in recent months", written to both Castro and Obama, inving them "to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties."

"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," it continued.

"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."