Vatican's U.S. envoy, who helped shape U.S. church, dies

July 28, 2011

(RNS) The Vatican's highest-ranking official in the United States,
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, died Wednesday (July 27) night at Johns Hopkins
Medical Center in Baltimore, succumbing to complications from lung
surgery performed a few weeks earlier.

Sambi, who was 73, spent five years representing the Holy See's
interests in Washington, helping Pope Benedict XVI reshape the American
hierarchy through key appointments.

Choosing Sambi's replacement could be one of the most important
decisions Benedict will make. The apostolic nuncio -- in effect the
Vatican ambassador to Washington -- plays a central role in advising the
pope on naming new bishops.

Those appointments form a key legacy for any pope, but especially
for Benedict, who is 84 and has made only one visit to the United States
as pontiff. The bishops that Benedict chooses to head American dioceses
are central to implementing his vision for the Catholic Church in the
United States, and many are sure to outlast his tenure.

The Italian-born Sambi was a career diplomat for the Holy See who
served on five continents and in a number of delicate posts, including a
stint as 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.

In late 2005, Pope Benedict, who had been elected pontiff that
April, named Sambi his apostolic nuncio to the United States. A large,
gregarious figure, Sambi was known for his warmth and sense of humor.

In a 2008 interview with Religion News Service, Sambi joked that he
needed a new pair of glasses when he was assigned to the United States
after eight years in Jerusalem.

"In the Holy Land, everything is small, and every small thing can
become a big problem," Sambi said. "In the United States, everything is
huge: the country, the people, the possibility, the opportunity and the
responsibility."

Sambi knew how to operate behind the scenes in the secular world as
well as in the often byzantine realm of church politics. When Benedict
upset many Catholics by deciding not to visit Boston -- the seat of the
clergy sexual abuse scandals -- during his 2008 visit to the U.S., Sambi
helped broker a resolution: the pope met privately with several abuse
victims in Washington.

When Sambi wanted to deliver a message he could also do so in
forthright public speeches to the U.S. bishops, such as a 2006 address
warning them about the "loss of credibility in the church" in the wake
of the clergy sex scandals.

Sambi's role in advising Benedict appointees to high-profile
dioceses was key, and observers say his influence was seen in Benedict's
selection of prelates like Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington and
Archbishop Jose Gomez in Los Angeles. Both men will be far more visible
than any nuncio ever is.

Another one of the prominent appointments of Benedict's reign, New
York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now president of the U.S. States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Thursday eulogized Sambi as an open
and affable pastor who "understood and loved our nation."

"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,"
Dolan said.

"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."