Sure, since taking up his brief as apostolic nuncio to Washington in February 2006, Archbishop Pietro Sambi has ruffled some feathers, civil and ecclesiastical alike.
Truth be told, though, they should've been ruffled long ago.
For the most part, the 69 year-old prelate has touched minds and won hearts, whether moving Katrina relief workers in New Orleans to tears with his words of appreciation for their commitment to service, or thanking the organizers of one recent installation for a liturgy which, he said, enabled "the spirit of profound prayer" to fill the space.
At January's installation in Monterey, Sambi dubbed Bishop Richard Garcia "the bishop of Paradise," telling the people in bilingual remarks that their gratitude, as evidenced by their applause for retiring Bishop Sylvester Ryan, was "the sign of a Christian community." (The nuncio ended up eclipsing the new bishop that day.)
He's helped light a Hindu rangoli before holding a dialogue with Deepak Chopra and paid tribute to Wojtyla's beloved Lena Allen-Shore, a Holocaust survivor and longtime friend with whom he's shared his love of Jerusalem -- the place where, in a 2004 interview, he said he "met Jesus," who had previously been "a beautiful dream somewhere up in the sky" for him.
And, of course, speaking to the nation's Catholic educators at April's NCEA Convention in Baltimore, the son and brother of teachers wowed the crowd of 10,000 with the message that they were "the greatest artists" of all.
With the US bishops, whose replacements he's been plodding through with a thorough diligence, his outreach has been no less gregarious... just a bit more pointed.
Sambi's talks to the American hierarchy's gatherings have made a point of identifying and focusing on the proverbial "800lb gorilla" in the room with a candor that, for a critical mass of the episcopal bench, has proven too much to take.
Last year in Baltimore, he cited "the loss of credibility" in the US church following the abuse scandals and implied that an ignorance of the Scriptures contributed to the breach. On the bishops' June retreat in New Mexico, he encouraged the body to keep his "laboratory" appraised of worthy candidates to the episcopacy -- just of a better, significantly more pastoral caliber than many had been sending, lest the recommendations end up seeing nothing but the trashcan.
Then, at last month's Baltimore meeting, after the nuncio stunned nearly everyone in attendance by formally announcing Pope Benedict's April visit, he said that the trek's vision lay in its serving as a "new Pentecost" for Stateside Catholicism, closing his talk by telling the body that "the Holy Spirit is ready -- the answer depends on us."
The Sambi Effect hasn't just been felt in church circles, but has earned the Vatican a new wave of attention and goodwill among the District's diplomatic crowd.
Noting the longstanding custom that renders the Holy See's representative ex officio dean of most diplo corps given the church's history of sending the first foreign-service delegations, one ranking official -- who's taken to calling Sambi "Super-Nuncio" -- said that, while that's not automatically the case in Washington, "with all the adulation Sambi's receiving" in State circles, "he might as well be" their dean.
The thought is backed up by the DC corps' insider mag, The Diplomat, which has devoted its cover profile this month to the Rimini-born papal legate... who spends his summers filling in for his hometown pastor so the latter can catch a breather.
Sambi believes religions should be a force for cohesion and healing rather than acrimony and conflict, and he has engaged in a kind of spiritual diplomacy to build bridges between nations and peoples during his 43-year priesthood, which has taken him to hotspots around the world ranging from Israel to Cuba.Through each of his postings as a mission-chief, one of Sambi's penchants has been advancing the concept of the nunciature as "the Pope's house."
“Religion is—and must be—an instrument of peace. Historically, religion has sometimes been an instrument of conflict. I think the youth will abandon their religion if it is an instrument of conflict. The mission of religion is peace—between individuals and God, and between individuals,” he told The Washington Diplomat.
And a diplomat’s mission is the creation of bridges. Diplomats are human beings with our beautiful days and dark days, with our efforts to overcome ourselves and to be better. You can build bridges when you give of yourself and exchange truth.”...
With a passion for history, he initially dreamed of life as a priest and as a professor of history. Speaking with a broad smile, Sambi is quick to say that his career in diplomacy was chosen for him.
“In the Catholic Church, you cannot ask to enter the diplomatic service,” he says. “If you ask, you will surely be rejected. You are called.”...
Sambi says that each of his postings has influenced him in personal and professional ways. During his time in the Middle East, for instance, both Jews and Arabs came to view him as fair-minded and forceful. He negotiated to free the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem after it became the site of a standoff between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces.
As nuncio in Israel, he criticized Israel for building walls to separate Israelis from Palestinians, calling it a “shame to humanity,” as well as for failing to take practical measures to implement the accords reached with the Holy See in 1993 and 1994.
But he’s also taken aim at Palestinian officials for anti-Semitism. In 2003, Sambi brought some Palestinian textbooks to the Vatican, which criticized the books as anti-Semitic and urged the Italian government not to provide any further funds for the Palestinian Ministry of Education.
In addition, Sambi has been a vocal defender of the rights of the Christian minority in the Holy Land. During his tenure as nuncio in Israel, he pushed for Jerusalem to have a special status that would provide the three monotheistic religions access to holy sites.
Sambi acknowledges that Middle East diplomacy is very difficult and that to be effective in the region, diplomats must be scrupulously fair. “Each side tries to take you completely on his own side,” he says. “If you do this, you can go home. Your mission is finished. You should not let yourself be identified with either of the contenders.”
Sambi says that during his time in the Middle East, he tried to reach out to all parties of goodwill and impart a simple message: “Peace is not a defeat for anybody. Peace is victory for everybody and for the future.”
But he admits that tragedies of the past continue to burden the region. “This is a conflict that has been going on since at least 1948. In almost every family you have the memory of someone who has been killed. So the past is of great weight in the present. But fear of the future is of even greater weight.”
Sambi passionately believes that the solution to the struggles of the Middle East is not the separation of the Jewish and Arab peoples. “The Holy Land does not need walls. It needs bridges. As a professor of history, I’ve never seen any example that the construction of a wall led to peace. To build a wall is a manifestation that you want to impose a solution,” he argues. “Peace can never be imposed. It will not last. Peace is always the result of an agreement with mutual trust.”
Sambi also believes that hope for the future is essential to solving any international problem. “When you become convinced there is no hope for peace, you stop working for peace. You abandon any initiative. You give space to those who have an interest in war, not peace,” he says. “I believe that human beings are greater than these problems and that earlier rather than later, before the Holy Land becomes just a cemetery, there will be peace.”
Spiritually, Sambi says his work in the Middle East was deeply satisfying. “From the Christian point of view, being in Jerusalem was the most important place because every stone helps you understand the history of man, his relationship to God, his tragedy and his blessings, and his Salvation.
“But of course, here in the United States, because of the influence this country has on the rest of the world, I feel such a sense of responsibility in my work,” he adds....
Sambi is Benedict’s main liaison with the American Catholic Church. He speaks frequently and admiringly of Pope John Paul II as well as of Pope Benedict XVI, whom he says has been important in advancing the message of the church.
“Benedict is one of the great thinkers of our time. He is very deep in his analysis of the human being in our time and very deep in his analysis of the place of God in the salvation of the human being,” Sambi says. “I would describe Pope Benedict as an old man with a young faith in Jesus Christ, his church and in human beings,” he adds....
Benedict is also clearly trying to reach out to the dwindling numbers of Catholics in the United States with his upcoming April visit. Currently, the American Catholic Church still has about 67 million members, making it the largest religious denomination in the country. The United States has the third largest population of Catholics in the world, after Brazil and Mexico.
“We should make the visit of the pope a moment of assurance to those who have left the church in the last year, an invitation to return,” Sambi said on Nov. 12 during an address to the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. “This is possible to think less to the suffering of the past and more to the problem of the future.”...
In addition to widely publicized sex scandals, the American Catholic Church has gone through difficult times in recent years, suffering from lawsuits, financial problems, declining numbers of priests and nuns, and an exodus of followers to other faiths.
Sambi acknowledges these problems, but insists that the American church remains vibrant and strong. He points out that large numbers of American Catholics attend mass regularly and give generously to charities. Sambi also argues that the tragedy of the sex crisis has forced the church to acknowledge its failings and rediscover its mission.
“The sex scandal is a call to the church to greater fidelity,” he says. “This is the secret of the church to make even a failure an occasion of conversion, of identity. This is the only way to go forward. I think this process is very strong inside the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church will come out of this situation stronger and more rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”...
One of Sambi’s other lifelong passions is interfaith dialogue. He believes that religious leaders need to meet, learn from each other, and find common ground.
Shortly after arriving in Washington, he attended a conference at Georgetown Univer-sity with other Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders. It was a powerful experience that prompted an epiphany of sorts.
“At Georgetown, I saw Jewish and Christian and Muslim leaders walk together, hand in hand, as sign of brotherhood. But I’ve never seen this in Jerusalem, or Cairo, or Beirut or Amman. Why is it possible in Washington but not in these other places? I think there is one reason: freedom. When you are free, there is the possibility of brotherhood and fraternity. If you don’t have freedom, it’s difficult to discuss this publicly.”
Reflecting on his long and consequential career in diplomacy, Sambi says it has been full of surprises but deeply gratifying. “I thank God who called me to do this service in the church. I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about reconciliation, about the world, about human beings throughout the world,” he says.
“I’ve discovered that everywhere human beings are born the same way, and what makes them happy or sad is more or less the same. They all die, bringing nothing with them. But if they are to improve themselves and the reality around them a little bit, it will be a good contribution. We cannot change the world. But we can change ourselves. When we improve ourselves, we help improve humanity a little.”
During the DC leg of Benedict's journey, that'll literally be the case.