Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States for more than five years, died on Wednesday evening, July 27, 2011 from complications of lung surgery performed approximately three weeks earlier. One week ago, the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., announced that Archbishop Sambi had been “placed on assisted ventilation to attempt recovery of his lung function after undergoing a delicate lung surgery two weeks ago.” The Archbishop was only 73 years old.
Pietro Sambi was born in the Northern Italian town of Sogliano sul Rubicone on June 27, 1938, and was ordained a priest on March 14, 1964 for the diocese of Montefeltro. 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. Sambi was named Papal Nuncio to the U.S. by Pope Benedict XVI in December 2005. At the time of his appointment he was the Vatican’s representative to Israel and Palestine, where he helped arrange Pope John Paul II’s historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000. We are not likely to forget that extraordinary pilgrimage of Blessed John Paul II--who was accompanied at every step by his representative in the Holy Land. Sambi arrived in the United States on February 24, 2006.
Having followed his work closely in the Holy Land, I knew that Archbishop Sambi was highly regarded by Israelis and Palestinians, by Christians, Muslims and Jews who live in God’s country. They respected him and recognized his courageous, uncompromising voice for peace. He negotiated to free the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem after it became the site of a standoff between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces. He stressed that “this is the time to abide by the words and concepts that were born here: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, peace, resurrection.”
As Nuncio in Israel, Sambi also criticized the building of the wall to separate Israel from the Palestinian territories as "a shame to humanity." "This region requires bridges, not walls," he said.
Sambi was also strong in criticizing the anti-Semitism sponsored by some Palestinian authorities. In 2003, Sambi took Palestinian schoolbooks to the Vatican for review. The Holy See condemned the books as virulently anti-Semitic and asked the Italian government not to provide any further funds for the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Italy has since refused to provide further money.
In March 2003, Sambi addressed a visiting US Congressional delegation and shared a warning from the Vatican that the new constitution prepared by the Palestinian National Authority for the emerging Palestinian State was based on the most fundamentalist Islamic interpretation of the Sharia Law, and that the constitution for the emerging Palestinian state allowed for no recognition for the juridical status for Judaism or for Christianity.
Sambi has also been a vocal defender of the rights of the Christian minority in the Holy Land. “It is our duty to help Christians in the Holy Land, help them not to become spiritually and morally prisoners of the conflict.”
Pietro Sambi loved the American Church, its dynamism, diversity and youthfulness. He had great respect for its outreach to the world. Our paths crossed several years ago at a Knights of Columbus Convention when I was asked to be interpreter for Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone during his visit to the United States. The Nuncio had accompanied Cardinal Bertone throughout his visit and we were able to spend many memorable moments together at the convention. A wonderful friendship began with Archbishop Sambi. I will never forget his evident joy during the historic visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States in April 2008. I was invited to the White House welcome ceremony for the Holy Father. Sambi was radiant that day! We spoke about it afterward he continued to express disbelief at how joyful the mood was inside the White House on the Pope’s birthday!
Pietro Sambi was a frequent e-mail correspondent. Several years ago he phoned and asked to meet with me on an upcoming visit to Washington to discuss Salt + Light Television. During our animated meeting at the Apostolic Nunciature and subsequent lunch, it was obvious to me that he had been following us on the Internet. He even asked about some of our on-camera personalities. “Where did you find such intelligent, articulate, beautiful young people? They are so normal and so Catholic,” he quipped!
Two years ago, I was appointed as one of the three male visitors to the Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious in the USA. It was a privilege to be part of this group, whose work, I am convinced, will help renew religious life in North America. Shortly after my appointment, Archbishop Sambi wrote and asked me to seriously consider making a television documentary on the Visitation and on the role of Women Religious in the USA. I accepted his invitation and am happy to say that the documentary is in the final editing states right now. The Nuncio had loaned me several books and documents that assisted me with the script of the documentary. Several months ago he wrote and said: “Don’t forget about my books! You must return them along with a copy of the film that we will watch together here in Washington. And you can also do some interviews with me for Salt + Light! I love Salt + Light!”
The documentary on the Apostolic Visitation will be ready in a few months. I will dedicate it to the memory of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who respected greatly the role of Women Religious in the life of the American Church. In one of his last e-mails to me, he shared several ideas about religious life in the USA and Canada, and how we have to highlight the role of Women Religious.
Archbishop Sambi was a great supporter of Catholic Higher Education. He had a particular love for Bethlehem University in the Holy Land. He referred to Bethlehem University as “the real star of Bethlehem.” When he learned that I was part of the Bethlehem University Foundation Board, he expressed great delight. Salt + Light Television is producing a major documentary on this university in the Palestinian Territories. Last September, we presented a preview of the documentary at a dinner in Washington, D.C. I sat with Archbishop Sambi as the assembly of Bethlehem University supporters and Christian Brothers viewed the film. People were deeply moved by the presentation. Sambi leaned over and expressed his delight as well as asking me for several copies of the video for his friends.
Nuncios come and nuncios go. Few people have the opportunity to meet them or connect with them. Their delicate work of diplomacy and ecclesial administration often removes them from the mainstream of Catholic life. How blessed we have been in Canada and in the United States to have nuncios in recent times who did more than their diplomatic and administrative duties. In Canada we are very unlikely to forget our previous nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, now Apostolic Nuncio to France. People continue to tell “Luigi stories” around the country… Church leaders, pastors, government figures, and very ordinary people, especially young people whom he touched. Archbishop Ventura was a great man, pastor and diplomat. He was a great friend to many of us.
And in the United States today, many people are telling “Pietro stories.” They didn’t call him “Super Nuncio” for nothing! Archbishop Pietro Sambi went above and beyond his diplomatic and ecclesiastical duties. He bonded. He moved people with his infectious smile and enthusiasm. He showed remarkable courage, wisdom and compassion. He told it like it was and was loved for his great humanity.
An ancient Latin expression, first used by St. Ambrose in the fourth century, came to my mind last night as I received the news of Archbishop Sambi’s untimely death: “Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia” which translated means: “Wherever Peter is, there is the church.”
The New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles tells us that “they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.”
For the past five years, the “shadow of Pietro” fell on America, and more than America. His zeal, serenity and humanity ignited a nation, a Church and a continent with hope in the midst of cynicism, scandals, despair and many who would like to hasten death for a church that is alive and young.
May the angels lead Archbishop Sambi into Paradise, may the martyrs receive him and lead him to the holy city of Jerusalem. May a choir of angels receive him and with Lazarus, once a pauper, may he have eternal rest. May the shadow of Jesus now fall on Pietro in Heaven and welcome him home.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation