ST. FRANCIS – When Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States since early 2006, died July 27, the Vatican not only lost a veteran diplomat, but someone who made an impact on the church in the United States, according to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki.
“Archbishop Sambi was genuinely interested in what was going on in the United States,” the archbishop told your Catholic Herald Aug. 1.
Archbishop Sambi, 73, died at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore apparently from complications of lung surgery performed approximately three weeks earlier.
Archbishop Listecki came to know the nuncio through the former’s service on the U.S. Bishops’ Administrative Board and later while serving on the same body’s executive committee.
“We would get to talk to him informally, and we got to listen to him as he would offer his advice,” the archbishop said.
What he termed “my fondest recollection” of Archbishop Sambi occurred when the then-bishop of La Crosse and the nuncio had their flights delayed from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Washington.
“We went over and had coffee and just talked about priesthood, issues, the role of the bishop. He was extremely interested in what was happening in the American dioceses,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Listecki noted that Archbishop Sambi’s interest “in knowing the particulars about the good things that were happening in American dioceses could only come from someone who could appreciate that from a pastoral sense.”
While the duties of the nuncio are to serve as the Vatican ambassador to the United States and to represent the pope before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, how he executes those responsibilities depend on the person himself.
“He brought a different presence to the position of apostolic nuncio. The presence was formulated through his personality…. He was a great lover of life. Loved the church. Loved people. Intensely interested in what you were doing,” Archbishop Listecki said. “All of this made for just one interesting person. He was a wonderful individual whose personality shaped the office.”
Citing the appointment of bishops as one of the reasons the nuncio’s job is “significant,” the archbishop said, “That person has a great deal to do with shaping the church in the United States, and with the types of personalities that are selected. If the person knows more about the country, its priests and its people, it can only be a plus for the country. And Archbishop Sambi did.”
Archbishop Listecki said that one of the reasons he liked the nuncio was the latter’s willingness to serve.
“He always did what the church asked him to do,” the archbishop said, adding that Archbishop Sambi “exemplified” service.
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, in his role as president of the USCCB, said, “Archbishop Sambi understood and loved our nation. He traveled throughout the country, often to attend the ordination of bishops, always eager to meet the faithful, and to share with them the affection that the Holy Father has for them and their country.”
“He was open to the media as a conveyor of truth and welcomed journalists as representatives of the American people,” the New York archbishop said. “He enjoyed everything from a stroll in the park near his residence in Washington to the diplomatic functions he attended as part of his service as the representative of the Holy See to the United States.”
Archbishop Dolan recalled “the indispensable role” the nuncio had during Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the U.S. in 2008, saying he had “enabled our entire nation to see the wonderfully warm solicitude of the Holy Father for America.”
A veteran Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Sambi was named as 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.
After he arrived in the U.S. Feb. 24, 2006, he said in an interview with Catholic News Service in Washington that that he was impressed by the vitality of U.S. Catholicism, the level of weekly Mass attendance among U.S. Catholics and their generosity toward others.
A memorial Mass for Archbishop Sambi is scheduled to be celebrated at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Sept. 14. Archbishop Dolan will preside.
With information from Catholic News Service.