WASHINGTON — The death of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Holy See’s representative to the United States, prompted expressions of sadness and esteem from Church leaders here and abroad.
Dubbed the “super nuncio” by his many admirers in the Church, Archbishop Sambi personified the best of the Holy See’s diplomatic corps, combining pastoral sensitivity with an in-depth expertise in high-stakes negotiations — gifts on display in flash points like Jerusalem and Cyprus. While a series of striking U.S. episcopal appointments drew applause from orthodox Catholics, the nuncio also earned praise for his role in the 2008 visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States, when the Pontiff met with clergy abuse victims.
Archbishop Sambi died July 27 at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore following complications from lung surgery. He was 73.
Archbishop Sambi’s funeral was held in his hometown of Sogliano sul Rubicone, Italy, Aug. 2.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, will be the main celebrant at a memorial Mass for Archbishop Sambi on Sept. 14 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. The date for the memorial Mass coincides with the fall meeting of the USCCB Administrative Committee, and Archbishop Dolan invited bishops from around the country to concelebrate the Mass.
“As the personal representative of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Sambi enjoyed the highest respect and deepest affection of the bishops of the United States and of our Catholic people,” said Archbishop Dolan, in a statement issued July 28 that marked the papal nuncio’s death.
“He played an indispensible role in the coordination of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to our country in 2008, and so enabled our entire nation to see the wonderfully warm solicitude of the Holy Father for America,” Archbishop Dolan added, underscoring the nuncio’s dual role, as both the Pope’s personal representative to the local Church and as the ambassador of the Holy See to the United States.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington expressed deep sadness at the death of the Vatican diplomat, who became a trusted friend and collaborator during their extensive preparations for the papal visit.
“I thank God that I was able this Sunday [July 24] to go to the hospital and anoint Archbishop Sambi. That is something I will always cherish,” said Cardinal Wuerl in an interview that recalled the nuncio’s warmth, humor and generous participation in archdiocesan events.
“He could find something to laugh about, no matter what the situation involved,” said the cardinal. “As the Pope’s representative here, Archbishop Sambi put a face on that presence that was happy, cheerful and welcoming. We saw that same warm spirit during the Pope’s visit, and after the Holy Father’s departure, his caring presence remained in the person of Archbishop Sambi.”
Indeed, as the nation’s capital prepared for that papal visit, Archbishop Sambi underscored the central role of the Vicar of Christ, noting that the Pope “comes to strengthen the faith, the hope and love of the Catholic Church in the United States.”
He expressed his hope that the Pope’s visit would “bring a new wind of Pentecost ... a new springtime” to the U.S. Church. In fact, the historic trip served as a groundbreaking opportunity for the Holy Father to apologize directly to the American people for the clergy abuse scandal. Pope Benedict also met personally with victims.
While preparing for that trip, the nuncio also echoed the Holy See’s ongoing concerns about the U.S. invasion of Iraq — a “pre-emptive” action that elicited strong criticism from Pope John Paul II. In a published interview, Archbishop Sambi underscored “the deep conviction of the Holy See that war must be always the last option. All other options have to be tried before starting a war. A war is always a sign of human failure in reaching an agreement.”
‘We Will Miss His Smile’
Archbishop Sambi traveled throughout the United States for the ordination of new bishops, among other obligations.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver — now the archbishop-designate of Philadelphia — remembered several recent trips by the nuncio, and said his presence “lifted the hearts, minds and souls of all those he met. We will miss his smile and his presence very much.”
Later, in a public statement, Archbishop Chaput remembered “a man of great apostolic energy. Anyone who met him was immediately aware of his intense love for the Church and his enthusiasm for the Gospel. That visible love and enthusiasm was a source of great support for the bishops of the United States.”
Papal nuncios are responsible for the vetting and nomination of bishops. Following his arrival in Washington in 2005, some Church insiders applauded a series of strong episcopal candidates, who have tended to be unapologetic in their articulation of Catholic teaching.
“Under Sambi’s watch, we have had a striking series of good appointments. These bishops are orthodox and unapologetic about it. They stand for the teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church. That is the policy — if you will — they seem determined to pursue as bishops,” said Russell Shaw, a spokesman for the USCCB between 1969-1987 and the author of Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.
“Clearly, this is not an accident,” Shaw added. “This represents a deliberate policy decision for all the people involved in the selection process, including the nuncio.”
Service in the Holy Land
The papal nuncio’s unexpected death ended a life that defined the unique talents of Vatican diplomats. Apostolic nuncios employ their broad range of contacts and pastoral gifts to play a critical but often unseen role, smoothing tensions and moving opposing forces closer to a resolution.
Born in 1938, Pietro Sambi was ordained a priest in 1964 in the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro, Italy. He earned doctorates in theology and canon law. He entered the Diplomatic Corps of the Holy See in 1969, accepting a post in Cameroon. Subsequent posts included Jerusalem, Cuba, Algeria, Nicaragua, Belgium and India. He was made a bishop in 1985, and then served as pro-apostolic nuncio in Burundi and Indonesia. In 1998, he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Israel and Cyprus and apostolic delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine.
According to some of his closest associates, his talents were employed to greatest advantage during his service in the Holy Land, where sectarian disputes, the ongoing exodus of Christians, and the Holy See’s complex relationship with Israel required his seasoned expertise.
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Custody of the Holy Land, remembered Archbishop Sambi as a diplomat who was “also very direct.”
“He played an important role in the preparation and management of the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land” — a groundbreaking papal pilgrimage that hinged on carefully prepared “gestures and speeches.”
Father Pizzaballa suggested that Archbishop Sambi “played an essential role during the difficult period of the second intifada and, in particular, [during] the so-called “siege of the Nativity.” [When the Israel Defense Forces occupied Bethlehem and tried to capture wanted Palestinian militants, dozens of them sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity.] I met him personally after these events, when he gave his support to the newly organized Hebrew-speaking Catholic community.”
Through his years of service in the Holy Land, said Father Pizzaballa, the nuncio demonstrated a great love for the local Church and its rich legacy.
“After his departure for the United States, he maintained contact with the land that he always loved.” Throughout his years in Washington, D.C., he continued “to support the Holy Land, in particular the initiatives of the Franciscan Foundation in the Holy Land, holding conferences, receptions and similar initiatives at the nunciature.”
Like many of the archbishop’s friends and associates, the priest recalled a Church leader with “a contagious and genuine optimism. ... And he knew how to transmit to anyone his love for the Church, which he served with dignity.”
When Archbishop Sambi left the Holy Land, Israeli officials remembered a Church leader who had helped to pave the way for an increase in pilgrims to the area, after political violence and sectarian tensions discouraged such travel. Israeli Minister of Tourism Avraham Hirchson called Archbishop Sambi a “friend of the state of Israel and the people of Israel.”
“I think you did for peace in the Middle East more than many people we see every day in the newspaper. For the first time, you built a relationship between us and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism,” Hirchson told the archbishop in published remarks.
“If 300,000 tourists passed our borders this year, and last year there were only 51,000, it is because of your wonderful work,” the Israeli minister added.
In Rome, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Diaz, released a statement that identified the nuncio as a trusted collaborator with “a profound understanding of the rich and diverse reality of the United States. He was a superb diplomat whose skills left a lasting impact in places where he served.”
A high-placed Church source said that the Vatican had planned to appoint Archbishop Sambi as prefect of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, the dicastery which handles financial matters.
Instead, Church officials there also greeted the news of his unexpected death with sadness.
Said Cardinal Renato Martino, honorary president of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, “He was appreciated highly in the diplomatic world.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Rome correspondent Edward Pentin contributed to this report.