Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Super-Nuncio" Gets His Close-Up

Longtime readers of these pages are well-acquainted with the Holy See's man in Washington Archbishop Pietro Sambi, whose appointment as apostolic nuncio to the United States in late 2005 was -- in keeping with tradition -- one of B16's first major personnel moves in the Vatican's diplomatic corps.

As he marks the second anniversary of his arrival at the "bank vault" on Massachusetts Avenue -- and gets the place ready for the white-clad VIP who'll be staying there for his three nights come mid-April -- word on the "Super-Nuncio" is getting out. In a big way.

In his first interview with a national outlet, USA Today's Cathy Lynn Grossman checks in with the 69 year-old prelate, who's redefined the DC post by force of personality:
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the veteran Vatican diplomat who serves as the Holy See's U.S. ambassador, knows exactly why the world will see — but not hear — Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the bedrock at Ground Zero during the pope's first visit to the USA.

The silence is Sambi's idea.

"This will be a moment of solidarity with those who died and their families. He will walk alone to indicate the loneliness of those who went to their deaths and the loneliness of the survivors. He will light a lamp. He will pray silently and make a public prayer (the only portion to be broadcast) for the remembrance of those who died, and for peace.

"There must be only silence and prayer here because not a single word will be enough to be convincing. Nothing will be adequate to touch the loneliness of those who died there and those who lost someone. Silence and prayer are what is required."...

Sambi, 69, is a model of Italian charm who engages visitors with warm hazel eyes and expressive hands emphasizing his conversation. He has a 40-year résumé of serving in world hot spots: Jerusalem, Cuba, Indonesia and more.

He follows the late Colombian Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo in the post, which is officially known as the Papal Nuncio. But while Montalvo was "old school" in the job of communicating behind closed doors between the Vatican and U.S bishops, Sambi engages in "a public and pastoral way," says church historian Matthew Bunson, editor of The Catholic Almanac.

One of Sambi's first actions was to visit with New Orleans relief workers, for example.

Now, the nuncio wants to correct many people's image of Benedict, drawn from when the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, enforcing John Paul II's strict vision of Catholic teachings.

"Anyone who lives by first impressions will simply see very quickly they were wrong about this Pope Benedict," Sambi says.

"The great surprise for people will be that the professor is a very simple man, human and warm in the ways in which he expresses himself. He came down from the chair of the teacher and accepted the role of preacher."...

Benedict's U.S. visit is built around his address to the United Nations April 18, where he will likely speak out for "peace and human dignity," including care for the poor, for refugees and for the environment, "God's creation," Sambi says....

"Hope is the transcendent theme. A person or a people without hope is already dead," Sambi says. "In his humble, simple, kind way, this pope is bringing us this clear message: that the way to happiness is to know that God loves you, and because God loves you, you love your neighbor."

The pope also will confront the ugly wounds of clergy sexual abuse. The scandal, which involved nearly 5,000 priests and more than 12,000 victims, rocked the nation in 2002. Settlements and legal bills have surpassed $1.5 billion.

The pope "will address this — and more than once," Sambi says.

But he does not elaborate on when or where, or whether the pope will meet with abuse victims. On that, the voluble Sambi falls diplomatically silent.

Neither will the pope say anything about the contentious U.S. presidential elections, Sambi adds.

Young people are drawn to the pope's message of "obedience to God as the way to happiness" and away from the self-centeredness of modern life, Sambi says.

"If you stop believing that you are God, it will be easy to believe in Him."

Catholics believe the pope is infallible in questions of faith and morals, but "he very rarely makes infallibility an issue. There is so much absolutism, so much infallibility in each of us, the pope uses it very little by comparison."

Sambi, eyes twinkling, repeats, "People will be surprised."

Tip to New Advent.

PHOTO: Joe Brier/USA Today