Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Super-Nuncio," Rome-Bound?

Afoot for months, the buzz has only grown more insistent over recent days that, after a considerably successful half-decade as B16's man on these shores, the "Super-Nuncio" is set to leave the domestic stage, returning to Rome and the traditional reward for the Holy See's representatives to the US.

With as many as four open Vatican posts cited as possible destinations for Archbishop Pietro Sambi to be placed in line for the red hat that's been given to all but two papal emissaries to Washington over the last 120 years, La Stampa's Andrea Tornielli was sufficiently constrained to say merely that the 72 year-old veteran of the diplomatic corps will receive a "cardinalatial" slot in relaying the move.

Tipped to succeed to the DC "laboratory" is the current "deputy mayor" of Vatican City, Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ², 70.

Unlike the current occupant of at 3339 Massachusetts Avenue NW, however, Sambi's rumored replacement has only served once previously as a nuncio -- a seven-year stint in Nigeria, Africa's largest country, from 1992-99.

A member of the diplomatic corps since 1973, the majority of ViganĂ²'s assignments have been within the Vatican, in the direct ranks of the Secretariat of State.

While internal concerns like the appointment of bishops, handling disputes and keeping the Home Office briefed invariably tend to dominate the Stateside mission's agenda, no shortage of observers will seek to parse a handover of the Holy See's US headquarters for its secular significance -- that is, if the move indicates any hint of a Vatican change of tone toward the Obama administration, to which Rome has sent favorable signals over time despite the former's stance on legal abortion, a state of affairs which has riled a critical mass of American Catholics (and, indeed, the bishops who lead them).

In that light, with Sambi's White House relations having remained predominantly cordial over the first half of the President's term, it bears recalling that any change at the "Pope's House" in the nation's capital would have to pass the muster of Benedict's all-powerful Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, who's perceived to be the lead force behind the Vatican's fairly dove-ish approach to the White House.

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The architect of a sweeping post-scandal reboot of the Stateside bench and 2008's warmly-received PopeTrip to Washington and New York, Sambi was named to the DC posting within eight months of Pope Benedict's election.

The move maintained a half-century custom of a change at the Washington Nunciature as one of a new pontiff's first symbolic stamps on his global diplomatic presence, reflecting the US post's critical importance at the Vatican, both for geopolitical reasons and given the scope and influence of the nation's church.

Over the years since, the colorful, charming, even bubbly prelate, who turned 73 in late June, has both won friends and sparked frustration among his various constituencies; a big hit with church interest-groups and the press for his open style, emphasis on consultation and a decided lack of aversion to mixing things up, Sambi's penchant for zingers has served to rankle a notable portion of the Stateside bench at least occasionally, and the nuncio's diligence at drilling into local situations where he finds pertinent concern has left some of his bishops feeling weighed upon in the governance of their dioceses. (Once described as a "quick, effective and thorough" overseer of the things that fall on his desk, the mission-chief's hard-charging style has likewise made for a conspicuous turnover rate of the Nunciature staff since Sambi's arrival in March 2006.)

Since the founding of an Apostolic Delegation to the United States in 1893, all but two of the 13 prelates who've represented the Holy See in the nation's capital have been recalled to Rome at the end of their tenures and given the cardinal's red hat. Only three other missions have yielded the same near-constant result for their past heads: Paris, Rome and the United Nations' New York seat -- which, together with Washington, are often viewed as the "Big Four" of Vatican diplomacy.

The two US nuncios who didn't make the "Pope's Senate" were both fairly recent occupants of the Mass Ave. compound -- the controversial Jean Jadot, whose post-Conciliar term (1973-80) yielded episcopal nominees who subsequently garnered disfavor in Rome, and the gentleman Gabriel Montalvo (1999-2005), the reserved Colombian who, having helped steer the US church's initial path through the sex-abuse crisis, retired from the post only months before his death from lung cancer at 76. Yet now -- a year after Sambi was reportedly advised to "look around Rome" with an eye to being returned there -- the predominant tradition looks set to continue.

While Italian reports have indicated the nuncio's transfer to one of three ex officio cardinalatial posts in Rome -- the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, heading the Governatorato that runs the services of the Vatican City-State, or even overseeing the Basilica of St Mary Major in succession to Boston's exiled Cardinal Bernard Law (who turns 80 in November) -- arguably the most natural fit for the "man from Jerusalem" is another open red-hat slot he'd likely relish well more than the others: Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

Though based just by St Peter's, the latter slot's two most important areas are particularly well known to the archbishop -- Sambi's beloved Holy Land, where he's said he "came to know Jesus" while serving as nuncio to Jerusalem from 1998 until his transfer to DC; and the US itself, where a majority of the order's knights and dames live, and which provides the lion's share of the equestrian order's aid to the works of the small, struggling church in Israel and Palestine.

Usually a hyper-observant presence at USCCB meetings, the nuncio was conspicuously absent from last month's plenary in Seattle. Known for spending most of every summer in his Italian hometown -- and filling in for the local pastor so the priest can get a vacation -- Sambi headed back earlier than usual for a family wedding.

While any move had long been expected to not take place until fall, a wildfire of chatter over recent days has indicated a faster timetable. Either way, provided the buzz pans out, ViganĂ² will have especially difficult shoes to fill -- whatever one's feelings about these last years, Sambi's residency on these shores has been one for the ages.

Not since the legendary Pio Laghi, after all, has one Stateside nuncio installed his picks in a supermajority of the nation's traditional cardinalatial sees, let alone most of the 32 archbishoprics -- a legacy that will top the bench for some two decades to come.

Yet while the sum total of Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, St Louis, Miami and, soon, Philadelphia stands as a herculean feat in itself, as this tenure's gone, even that barely scratches the surface.

PHOTOS: The White House(2); Doug Mills/
The New York Times(3); Getty(4)