The report that Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, died from complications after lung surgery Wednesday, July 27, was sad news indeed. A large, towering man with a booming voice, he was an exceptionally bold diplomat. Once when the tour bus carrying U.S. bishops from Bethlehem to Ramallah for a meeting with Yasser Arafat was delayed in traffic at an Israeli checkpoint, he appeared in the oncoming lane directing the bus driver to crossover and proceed ahead. When the driver hesitated, he brought back an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, who stood alongside him, as he directed the bus through the checkpoint to its meeting with the Palestinian president.
At another time, when an American another bishops’ delegation was visiting Jerusalem, he invited the Israeli Foreign Ministry official charged with inter-religious relations to share dinner with them. Uninhibited, not allowing the customary delay of tough conversation until coffee was served, he used the dinner to review the full range of outstanding issues in Vatican-Israeli relations. It was a bravura performance.
Archbishop Sambi could signal his intentions in the coded ways more often associated with all diplomats and especially those of the Holy See. But he was capable of sharing jaw-dropping confidences too and taking decisive action when needed. When American high-placed prelates in Rome pontificated about controversial political issues in the U.S., he was quick to ask that they be instructed to leave U.S. affairs to the U.S. bishops. And when some bishops threatened to divide the conference with partisan posturing, he voiced his criticism.
Had he lived, Pietro Sambi would have surely received a cardinal’s red hat. But he will be laid to rest with the love and respect due a true churchman. May he be received into the company of Christ and his saints.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.