The visit of Pope Francis, Giorgio Bergoglio, to the US achieved the impossible: during a full-throttle presidential campaign, he muted partisan controversies and bickering and brought to the country a new sense of unity and purpose. This is something America has managed to attain only when under attack or facing an extreme threat. The pope is clearly no threat to America or anybody.

This triumph, beyond the rosiest expectations, creates an unprecedented new phenomenon. Bergoglio has created for Rome and the papacy a central role in international politics, despite not having an army, state, or political agenda.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

His appeal went beyond the 1.2 billion Catholics; it reached all Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and even Muslims, many of whom were touched by his prayer after the death of the hundreds killed in the Hajj stampede in Mecca.

This last element is extremely important because Francis seems to hark back to the days before the first split between the papacy and Islam. This rupture first occurred in the seventh century, when the Arab Saint John of Damascus singled out Islam as a new “Christian heresy.”

The pope is now more than ever the towering figure for global peace and tolerance, the religious “super leader” of the world, and thus, the real mortal enemy of forces like the Islamic State, who wave the Muslim flag to cover their real soul as devil and death worshipers.

Popes have been extremely important at various times in the past. They were influential in the 3rd and 4th century AD, thanks to a pact they struck with the Roman emperor; and in the Middle Ages, when they provided a cultural, social, and religious network in the political wasteland of Europe. But this was limited to the Mediterranean world and didn’t go beyond that.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, they followed, and at times, contrasted with the colonial policies of Spain and Portugal. But their influence depended often on the politics of Europe, which were bitterly split, with Holland and England (the new emerging powers) firmly arrayed against Rome.

The Christian split confined the pope’s influence to areas that belonged to Catholic kings, be they Spanish or French. But as they lost against England and later, the staunchly protestant US. The prestige of the popes declined in the ever more globalized world of the 19thand the 20th centuries. Then the dominant Anglo-Saxon press often mocked the popes as leaders of some sort of second-rate religion of some second-rate people. In fact, according to the tradition of the time, the Near East started in Naples, just south of Rome.

The beginning of this reversal came in the 1980s, when Polish-born Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, proved a formidable American ally in bringing down the Soviet Empire — so strong in fact, that as he pushed against Moscow, he also managed to protect communist Cuba from American intentions of toppling the shaky regime. With this, he signaled that the Vatican did not take the same line and have the same priorities as the U.S.

With this trip, Francis underscored that there can’t be any identification between papacy and the US, by visiting still-communist Cuba before landing in Washington. But he went well beyond the past. He managed to bring unity and hope to an America full of rifts by talking to the deep Christian soul of America, and thus proving to be almost a spiritual guide to the global leader, the US.

The “almost” is extremely important because Francis’s success was achieved by avoiding being put into any political box. He also gave many pause for thought. He is not conservative or progressive, in political terms, but appealed to the soul of people and managed the impossible: the Speaker of the House John Boehner resigned, claiming he was inspired by the pope, and the screeching noise of the presidential campaign and Trump’s candidacy was silenced for a brief few days.

It is possible that this will not be just a momentary impulse, but it will have a long-lasting influence in America and in the world, especially since on Dec. 8 the Holy Year of Mercy starts, which will draw even more attention to Rome.

In this Francis’s silence on China spoke volumes. He has extended his hand to China asking for a meeting with President Xi Jinping, but he does not press him or try to put him in an awkward position.

There is no hostility toward the pope in China, and there is also a glimmer of attention on the pope in Beijing, as the government allowed the circulation of an article by Shanghai bishop Ma Daqin wishing for a handshake between the pope and Xi[1]. The article is extremely significant because Ma was secluded for about two years because he renounced his membership in the government-sponsored Patriotic Association during his official ordination as a bishop of Shanghai.

On the other hand, if China doesn’t cope and come to terms with this new “super soft-power” of the papacy, it risks being marginalized. This seems to be the underlying reason for the American neglect of Xi during his recent visit to Washington: China may be moving out of the main American and Western narrative.

This may seem marginal for China, but it is conversely central.

One of China’s main advantages was its centrality in the American narrative since the 1980s. First, it was the geopolitical counterweight to the Soviets; then in the 1990s it was the hope andmain driver of American-sponsored globalization; eventually, after the 1998 and 2008 financial crises, engulfing Asia and America but not China, it was the threat to America’s primacy.

Yet, America this year might end up with almost 4% GDP growth, and China’s economy seems wobbling after the crash of its stock exchange this summer, proving that future economic trajectories may change. Moreover, with its new shale oil and green technology, America has become independent of Middle Eastern oil imports, which overshadowed its politics and peace of mind for decades.

Last, but not least, the pope may have contributed to restoring a sense of unity in contrast to the extreme partisanship of American politics and infusing new energy to the old American dream.

In all of this, China, bogged down by secretive, poisonous, and baffling internal politics, might lose its international luster and offer America too little too late with its small agreement on the environment and its modest pledge on stopping commercial hacking. These were important, because they started to address old festering issues, but may be not enough without something else. The real question seems to be whether China can keep up its economic, social, and political growth without American attention.

Yes, in the short term — but possibly not in the medium and long term.

Still, politics does not move in a straight line. The thousands of officials investigated and punished for graft might really be the prelude to a larger system shake-up, which the economy badly needs.

In all of this, in any event, the trips to America by the pope and Xi proved that even for China, all roads may lead to Rome.

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Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He works for the Catholic research center

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