Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Goodnight, Big Boss -- "Super-Nuncio" Sambi Dies at 73

Having received credible word from multiple sources, these pages are heartbroken to report that the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, died around 8pm Eastern tonight.

Pope Benedict's representative to these shores since 2006 -- and tipped to be in line for a Vatican post just a few weeks back -- Sambi turned 73 in late June.

As previously reported here, the veteran diplomat -- a beloved figure in chancery and embassy circles alike -- had been in grave condition at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore following a radical procedure early this month that involved the removal of half of one of his lungs. Having been kept sedated and on a ventilator since complications arose in the surgery's wake, a decision on continuing the archbishop's treatment had been expected before the end of the week.

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.

As of this writing, plans for a domestic lying-in-state and funeral remain to be discussed, let alone decided. Once any developments emerge on that front, they'll be posted as quickly as they're received.

In a way, though, this is uncharted territory for the Stateside church -- since the founding of an Apostolic Delegation at Washington in 1893, no papal legate to the US has ever died in office... that is, until tonight.

Ordained a priest in 1964, Sambi entered the diplomatic service of the Holy See five years later. In 1986, he was named an archbishop and nuncio to Burundi (a posting in which one of his successors would be killed in an ambush amid an outbreak of local bloodshed).

Each of Sambi's four postings as a mission chief saw the Italian's jovial, conciliatory personality parachuted into delicate, high-stakes situations where his gentle touch would be employed to its maximal effect: after five years in Africa, the archbishop was moved to Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim country. Then, in 1998, came a rough, but beloved triple assignment -- representing the Vatican in civil war-ravaged Cyprus, and above all, as papal legate to Palestine and Israel, where Sambi said he "came to know Jesus" by walking in the Lord's footsteps.

After seven years in Jerusalem -- a tenure highlighted by John Paul II's successful Jubilee Year pilgrimage to the Holy Land -- and having won plaudits for his ability to bridge the region's impassioned factions, late 2005 brought his final posting: the assignment to Washington and, with it, Sambi's elevation to one of Vatican diplomacy's "Big Four" nunciatures.

More to come. Above all, though, blessings and peace be upon a great friend to so many of us....

God love our "Super-Nuncio" forever, and may his work of uplifting be ours for the road ahead.

* * *
Having known, cherished and closely studied the Nuncio since his first weeks among us, and run just a few of his many pointed signal texts over the roller-coaster of these last weeks, admittedly -- tough as it's been to think about -- there's been one last word of his that this scribe's held onto in the dread of this moment.

The son and brother of schoolteachers, Pietro Sambi's episcopal ministry was especially devoted to the work of teaching -- in Catholic education, in the media, in every member of this church by our witness and example... but above all, it's the role he eagerly, unmistakably wanted his bishops to evidence most in their ministries.

Along those lines, it was beyond fitting that, in his final American road-trip, aware of the "delicate" surgery that'd befall him, B16's Man among us received an honorary doctorate from Denver's Jesuit-run Regis University, in the presence of the prelate to whom, just a few weeks later, Sambi would make his tenure's final -- and, on several angles, most consequential -- phone-call bearing news of the Pope's decision.

(But clearly -- and, indeed, par for the course -- Sambi enjoyed the added gift of a cowboy hat as much as he did another doctoral hood.)

As the Big Boss rides off into the sunset, though, one talk he especially enjoyed giving is worth recalling: the late Nuncio's 2007 keynote to the nation's Catholic educators at the National Catholic Education Association's Easter Week convention in Baltimore, its key grafs -- especially poignant in this hour -- reprinted here below (emphases original):
[A] young man, 22 years old, once took a piece of marble and sculpted in it two of the most deep human sentiments: suffering accepted from the hand of God does not diminish the beauty of the human person but increases it, and -- second sentiment -- even in death, a son continues to have full confidence in his mother.

This is the Pietá of Michelangelo, that you can see everytime you enter in the Basilica of St Peter in Rome.

Michelangelo, the author of the Pietá, is considered one of the greatest artists in the world. I don't believe it! The greatest artists are the educators -- are you -- because you try to sculpt the best of yourselves, of who you are and what you know, not in a piece of marble, but in living, breathing human beings, who are the glory of God.
And for all the things he's given the church on these shores -- both individually and by the thousands -- whatever our place in the mix, God give us all the grace to teach ever better in word and witness today, tomorrow and forever.

And for the man from Jerusalem who's been a friend and guide to so many among this readership -- this scribe included -- let the old prayer be ours....
Saints of God, come to his aid
Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord
Receive his soul, and present him to God the Most High....
Goodnight, Big Boss, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Eternal memory, and everlasting thanks, from no shortage of the church you leave behind.

While a 6 August Washington funeral for Sambi was initially eyed, plans have reportedly changed, with a Memorial Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception now said to be in the works, to be held on September 14th.

PHOTO: Jeff Malet