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 and a hearty laugh, he was an exceptionally bold diplomat. He exuded both bonhomie and authority.
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 the median and proceed ahead. When the driver hesitated, he brought back an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, who stood alongside him machine gun at the ready, as he directed the bus through the checkpoint to its meeting with the Palestinian president.
At another time, when an another American bishops’ delegation was visiting Jerusalem, he invited the Israeli Foreign Ministry official charged with inter-religious relations to share dinner with them. Uninhibited, he disregarded the customary delay of tough conversation until coffee was served, and he used the dinner to review the full range of difficult outstanding issues in Vatican-Israeli relations in the presence of the American delegation. 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 of taking decisive action when needed. When high-placed American 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 bishops’ conference with partisan posturing during a presidential election year, he voiced his criticism.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Sambi took his diplomatic duties seriously and did not allow his pressing church agenda to override his ambassadorial duties. During his first three months in Washington he met with 24 department secretaries and assistant secretaries. One St. Patrick’s Day he spent nearly two hours patching up relations with then- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi after rabid stateside protests had spoiled her visit to the Vatican. He also had direct access to the top. Just before President Obama’s inauguration, the president-elect telephoned the nuncio, one of only two ambassadors to receive a call those days.
Whether I joined him in Jerusalem or Washington, the gregarious nuncio hosted a wonderful table. It was always full of good-natured conversation with a wide range of humanity. He brought together Catholics and others of very different backgrounds and ideological dispositions. Everyone was ready to accept his invitation, “Come and share a bowl of pasta.”
Archbishop Sambi also delighted in drama and surprise. After a warm and full conversation a few years ago, he saw me to the door, and with a confidential and re-assuring air he told me, “You should know that a year ago the Holy See ceased to ask for weekly reports on America.”
Had he lived, Pietro Sambi would have surely received a cardinal’s red hat. 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.