Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital July 27. He was 73. Staff at the nunciature, his residence in Washington, on July 22 asked for prayers of the Catholic community for him.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Archbishop Sambi was a friend of the United States.
“As the personal representative of the 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,” Archbishop Dolan said in a July 28 statement.
Archbishop Sambi was appointed U.S. nuncio, or ambassador, in December 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI. Prior to the U.S. appointment, Pope John Paul II had named him nuncio to Israel and Cyprus and apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine in 1998. The appointment made him only the second Vatican ambassador to Israel, after the Vatican and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1994.
Archbishop Sambi was a native of central Italy and was ordained a priest in 1964. He was named an archbishop and nuncio to Burundi in 1985, a position he held for six years until being named nuncio to Indonesia.
During Pope Benedict’s April 2008 visit to the United States, Archbishop Sambi accompanied the pope and hosted him at the nunciature, where the pope held a historic private meeting with five victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Before the pope’s arrival, the archbishop said Pope Benedict was coming to “strengthen the faith, the hope and love of the Catholic Church in the United States,” adding that he hoped the pope’s visit would “bring a new wind of Pentecost … a new springtime” to the U.S. church.
Archbishop Sambi recognized the global role of the United States and the U.S. church and told the bishops in 2006 an anecdote from his time as Vatican representative to Indonesia. He recalled a Christmas he spent in a remote village in Indonesia where in street shops, he said, “I found Coca-Cola and Marlboros.”
“I think the United States and the church of the United States has something more to bring to the world than Marlboros and Coca-Cola,” he told the bishops.
Shortly after being named U.S. nuncio, Archbishop Sambi told Catholic News Service, the official news service of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, of the reach of the church in the United States.
“I travel a lot throughout the world. It is difficult to find a part of the world where the charity of U.S. Catholics did not reach the poor or sick people,” he said.
Archbishop Sambi received many honors, including an honorary doctorate in public and ecclesial service, May 8, from Regis University in Denver. In 2009, he received the Living Stones Solidarity Award, which honors those who have made “a sustained and extraordinary effort to love, support and stand in solidarity with the Christians in the Holy Land.” It is bestowed by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.
Last September he was the principal celebrant of a Mass marking the 13th anniversary of the death of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, which coincided with the U.S. Postal Service’s issuance of a stamp bearing her likeness.
“This stamp looks almost like a holy card. I pray it may serve in some small way as a reminder of Mother Teresa,” Archbishop Sambi said. “May Jesus stamp upon our hearts the same spirit as Mother’s to love God, the church and the poorest of the poor more than ourselves.”
At a 10th anniversary observance in 2009 of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by Catholics and Lutherans, Archbishop Sambi told a Washington audience that today’s disciples of Jesus, like the first disciples, should be recognized by how they love each other and, guided by Jesus, they should walk together in a spirit of unity, mutual respect and brotherhood.
“Each act of unity is a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus,” said the archbishop.
At the 2007 convention of the National Catholic Educational Association, he called teachers “the greatest artists of the world … because you sculpt the best of what you are, not in a piece of marble but in human beings who are the glory of God.”
“Each of us has forgotten a lot of what we were told in school,” he added, “but a lot of what’s inside is from the example of teachers.”
Archbishop Sambi had not yet been appointed to the U.S. until when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, but a year after the storm, he took what locals call a “misery tour” of New Orleans. It was only then, he said, he realized the extent of the damage. “You cannot measure the extent of it until you come on the spot,” he said.