Thursday, May 18, 2006

Dancing the Sambi

The clock hadn't struck 7am Tuesday morning when the calls started coming in, comparing (nonexistent) notes on who would succeed Archbishop-elect Donald Wuerl of Washington as bishop of Pittsburgh.

All inquiries to this effect were given the following prepared statement: "For the love of God, people, let's just get through today first."

Given the changed dynamics of the appointment process, however, the level of interest highlights the new reality. Wuerl's appointment to Washington -- Pope Benedict XVI's first American promotion in line to wear the red hat of a cardinal -- is also the most significant move presided over to date by the Vatican's new point-man in the US, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who arrived in March.

Since his arrival at the Massachusetts Avenue compound where the Holy See's US mission is based, Sambi has been winning over church insiders with a mix of charm, affability, humor, verve, a spirit of serenity and a dedicated sense of outreach. As one wowed cleric sized him up, "He's everything a nuncio should be."

One by one, as they come into contact with him, the US bishops are finding that they agree.

The 67 year-old archbishop -- who previously served as the papal representative to Israel and the Palestinian territories, with prior stints in Indonesia and Burundi -- is also a much more engaging speaker in social settings than his two immediate predecessors. Sambi took organizers by surprise when he asked to speak at last month's American Cardinals dinner in Washington, where he brought down the house with a meditation comparing the beauty of Michelangelo's Pieta to the artistry of parents and teachers in nurturing their children and students.

On Monday, at the installation of Bishop Richard Lennon in Cleveland, Sambi returned to the context of metaphor, delivering remarks at the liturgy's beginning which upstaged Lennon's inaugural homily.

In impassioned, clear English -- of a par not heard from a Vatican representative since Pio Laghi, who served in Washington from 1981-90 -- Sambi sounded a powerful call on the importance of the unity of believers.

(Some of you, however, will find it more important that he wore an amice while doing so and completely ignore the substance of his remarks.)

"Recall with me," Sambi said, "how Jesus, while sitting at the table with his apostles in the Upper Room on the night before he died, prayed not only for those gathered with him, but also for the church down through the ages.

"It seems clear that from the very beginning," the nuncio continued, "[that] unity among the Christian faithful is to be a hallmark, a sign, by which the presence of the Triune God will be made known and the faith will be proclaimed. And from the very outset, the role of the bishop as the spiritual father of the flock is to promote and strengthen the unity of his family."

Turning toward his own role and using it as a metaphor, Archbishop Sambi spoke of the two credential letters given him by Benedict XVI on his appointment to the United States as signs of his two roles: one letter was addressed to the president of the United States, as the nuncio serves as the Holy See's ambassador to the government; the other to the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in token of his role as the Pope's legate to the church in the United States.

"My mission is based on those letters," Sambi said, "and the content of those letters is, more or less, this: 'I send you this man as my personal representative. Accept his words as [if] they were my words, consider his signature as [if] it was my signature.'

Employing his comparison, the archbishop said that "Jesus Christ also wants a credential letter, not written in a paper, but the unity of the Christian community is the credential letter of Jesus Christ in front of the world and of humanity. Without this unity, the world -- humanity -- will not accept Jesus Christ in his mission."

Recalling both church history and his own personal path, the nuncio used "the first Christian community of Jerusalem" as an example of this unity, saying that it "had very strongly this sense of responsibility." "The group of believers was united heart and soul. No one of their members was ever in want, because of their great solidarity."

"Do you know how they were recognized?" the papal representative asked. Quoting the ancient aphorism, he replied: "Look how they love each other, look how they help each other, look how they respect each other.

"The source of this unity and the source of this solidarity that was the group of the disciples of Jesus? Remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers," Sambi said -- noting the presence of the bishops as "the successors to the apostles."

Currently, the nuncio's docket includes concluding the selections of new bishops to the vacant sees of Sioux Falls, Lake Charles, Youngstown, Salt Lake City and Birmingham, in addition to compiling shortlists for the score of dioceses whose heads have reached the retirement age of 75. (Raleigh, anyone?)

In the summer, however, the archbishop will likely continue his usual practice of going home to Italy, where he spends two weeks filling in for the pastor of his boyhood parish so the hometown cleric can get a vacation.

As one of Sambi's many enthusiasts summed it up, "In a diplomatic corps whose high-fliers are taught to drain themselves of all normal human sensibilities, it's nothing short of amazing that he is where he is."

That he's now here is a rare stroke of luck for the US church.