God's Diplomat Called Home

Jul 29, 2011 | Updated Sep 28, 2011

Wednesday night, I lost a friend.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, died last night of complications from lung surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Sambi had been listed in grave condition following a radical procedure earlier this month that required removing half of one of his lungs. He was sedated and on a ventilator following the development of complications after the surgery.

As famed Catholic journalist Rocco Palmo reports, "In his final hours, the Nuncio's sister, niece and nephew were said to be at his bedside after having been called over from Italy last week. The niece on hand was married by Sambi in his last trip to his beloved hometown of Rimini in mid-June."

With an ever-present smile, quick wit, and sharp intellect, Sambi took Washington and the U.S. by storm when he arrived in early 2006.

A veteran Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Sambi was named as papal nuncio to the U.S. by Pope Benedict XVI in December 2005, one of Pope Benedict first and most important appointments. 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. Sambi also helped coordinate the pope's 2008 visit to the U.S. Archbishop Sambi also held diplomatic posts in Cuba, Nicaragua, Belgium and India.

Rumors had been circulating for some time that Sambi was in line for a cardinalatial post back at the Vatican.

In a post that is usually better known among the bishops than among policymakers, Sambi was the consummate diplomat, respected highly by the White House, State Department, as well as the American bishops.

My first meeting with Archbishop Sambi came surprisingly at his request. As he bounded into the sitting room of the Nunciature, hand outstretched, he said, "So you are the Mr. Grieboski I am told I had to meet."

His warmth, intellect, and engaging personality made it very easy to like and appreciate Sambi. As Catholic News Service described him, Sambi was "an energetic and gregarious man with an ability to bring the human touch to diplomatic challenges."

My wife Sarah, who only half-jokingly says she judges our house guests by whether or not our whippets like them, always held Sambi in the highest of regard. We will never forget the night we sat in our living room listening to his stories of world adventures, our puppy Percy curled up beside him.

Archbishop Sambi was open and accessible to everyone. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, commented, "He was open to the media as a conveyor of truth and welcomed journalists as representatives of the American people."

Concerned about the abuse scandal in the Church in the U.S., Sambi arranged for Pope Benedict XVI to meet with victims of clergy sex abuse. Addressing the 2009 assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men that the church should not be "a prisoner of sex scandals," nor should it be "a prisoner of the crisis of religious life," adding that he was "deeply convinced that the values and witness of religious life are extremely important for the renewal of the church."

Pointing out the challenges faced by today's priests and religious orders, the archbishop called the clergy abuse scandal "a horrible experience which has deprived all of us of our credibility before our faithful and before society."

Sambi loved the United States and was a fervent believer in America's ability to do good.

Upon his arrival in Washington, he told the bishops a story of a Christmas he spent in a remote village when he was posted in Indonesia. In its street shops, he recalled, "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 said.

In Washington, after he arrived as nuncio, he told CNS that in his travels as a papal diplomat, it was "difficult to find a part of the world where the charity of U.S. Catholics did not reach the poor or sick people."

Wednesday night, the Church lost more than a diplomat; she lost a leader, a teacher, a guide, and a shepherd. And I lost a friend.