U.S. Apostolic Nuncio Remembered

Catholic bishops and clergy in U.S. and at the Vatican pay tribute to the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi.

President George W. Bush and Laura Bush welcomed papal nuncio Pietro Sambi (second from right) and Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl to the White House July 18, 2006.
President George W. Bush and Laura Bush welcomed papal nuncio Pietro Sambi (second from right) and Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl to the White House July 18, 2006. (photo: White House photo)

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since this morning.

WASHINGTON (CNA) — Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Holy Father’s diplomatic representative to the U.S., died the evening of Wednesday, July 27, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he had been placed on assisted ventilation after complications following a lung surgery performed two weeks ago. He was 73.

On Monday, July 25,  the nunciature, along with Archbishop Sambi’s family, who traveled to Baltimore from Italy after the worsening of Archbishop Sambi’s condition, asked “bishops, priests, religious, and lay faithful” to offer “sacrifices and prayers” for the nuncio’s recovery.

Archbishop Sambi was appointed by Pope Benedict in 2005 as the apostolic nuncio to the United States. He began his duties in Washington in February of 2006.

The archbishop was born in the northern Italian town of Sogliano sul Rubicone in 1938 and was ordained a priest on March 14, 1964, for the Diocese of Montefeltro. Archbishop Sambi was fluent in English, Spanish and French and held doctorate degrees in theology and canon law.

He joined the Vatican diplomatic service in 1969 and served in the nunciatures or apostolic delegations to Cameroon, Jerusalem, Cuba, Algeria, Nicaragua, Belgium and India.

In 1991, he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Indonesia and in 1998 was appointed apostolic nuncio to Israel and apostolic delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine.

During his difficult tenure as nuncio in Israel, Archbishop Sambi pushed for safeguards on freedom of religion, equality for monotheistic religions, and increased access to and worship in the holy places.

Recently, Vatican experts voiced Archbishop Sambi as a strong candidate to move to a senior position at the Vatican.

Catholics across the nation are grieving the loss of the Vatican representative.

“He had a ready smile, was approachable, and was good with people from every walk of life,” Msgr. Walter Rossi, head of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., told EWTN News on July 28.

Archbishop Sambi “was truly a man of faith, keen insight and good humor,” Msgr. Rossi noted. “With Archbishop Sambi, we had a nuncio who had a great affection for the Church in the United States.”

The priest recalled how Archbishop Sambi “was keenly interested in the welfare of the entire Church, lay faithful, priests, bishop, consecrated men and women.”

“Even though he was the Holy Father’s personal representative and a diplomat, Archbishop Sambi was just like one of us,” he said. “He shared the joys as well as the heartache of the Church in the United States, he regaled in our vitality, and wherever he went, he encouraged us to become better disciples and a holier people.”

The news of Archbishop Sambi’s death caused an outpouring of grief from Catholic leaders around the U.S.

Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, who is the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said that the announcement of his passing “brings deep sadness for the Church in the United States.”

“Archbishop Sambi enjoyed the highest respect and deepest affection of the bishops of the United States and of our Catholic people,” Archbishop Dolan said July 28.
He remembered Archbishop Sambi as “a friend of the United States,” recalling the late nuncio’s pivotal role in coordinating the Pope Benedict’s visit to the country in 2008.

Archbishop Dolan also praised his “keen sense of diplomacy” and pastoral heart.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Washington Archdiocese said that he is “deeply saddened” by the archbishop’s death and feels “the loss because, since his arrival in Washington five years ago, we had many occasions to collaborate.”

“Over the years, we developed a friendship that I will greatly miss,” the cardinal added.

Archbishop of Baltimore Edwin O’Brien also expressed his grief, calling the nuncio’s passing “a great loss for the Catholic Church, especially here in the United States.”

“Archbishop Sambi excelled through his gentle spirit and infectious goodness,” Archbishop O’Brien said, “and the impact of his work as apostolic nuncio to the United States will be felt for many years to come.”

John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, remembered the archbishop as being “a passionate advocate of Catholic education” who had an instant rapport with the school’s students.

“We will always remember his enthusiastic proclamation of the word, his cheerfulness, and his openness to everyone who crossed his path,” Garvey said.

Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, praised Archbishop Sambi for his personal investment in the pro-life cause and for his continual encouragement of the group’s mission.

“In addition to his many responsibilities, which he carried out with great fidelity and joy, he also followed our work with great interest,” Father Pavone said.

The archbishop also received a tribute from the Vatican.

“He was a strong personality, a great bishop, an eminent nuncio, who served the Holy See and the Church with passion, intelligence and effectiveness,” Father Ciro Benedettini, vice director of the Vatican Press Office, told EWTN News on July 28.

“He made himself appreciated and loved both by the Popes, the Roman Curia and the bishops, the clergy and laity, and the diplomatic personnel where he worked, especially in Indonesia, Israel and the U.S.”

Archbishop Sambi’s funeral will be at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Aug. 6, the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, at 2pm. 

The funeral will be televised live by EWTN.