Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Go and Live!": On Memorial Eve, Sambi's Last Word

Six weeks after Archbishop Pietro Sambi's death at 73, tomorrow brings the climactic Memorial Mass in Washington for the Stateside church and the capital's diplomatic corps.

With Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York slated to preside and preach in his capacity as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the noontime (Eastern) liturgy at DC's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is expected to draw more than 80 prelates and throngs of political and interfaith leaders.

Open to the public, the Mass will likewise be livestreamed by EWTN.

As other logistics go, the last round of reports from Rome still indicated that Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ² -- the long-tipped lead contender to take the reins of the Washington Nunciature -- would be formally named to the US posting before month's end.

In an unusual state of Roman limbo, the 70 year-old prelate is currently without a job following the early September appointment of his replacement as Secretary of the Governatorato -- in layman's terms, Vatican City's "deputy mayor." While an announcement has ostensibly been held until the end of the formal mourning period for Sambi, the delay has unwittingly fueled speculation, already aired in the Italian press, of ViganĂ²'s reluctance to take the Washington posting, and his preference for another assignment at the Vatican, where the archbishop has spent three of his four decades in the Holy See's direct service.

A decidedly low-key figure with a keen managerial bent, ViganĂ² has only served once previously as a Nuncio: in Nigeria, where he was posted from 1992-98.

Beyond the vacancy itself, the first-ever vacuum atop the "Pope's House" on these shores has also served to gridlock the planning for the lion's share of the US bishops' impending ad limina visit to Rome.

Even as the Stateside bench's first Vatican check-up since 2004 will begin in early November with the bishops of New England, 12 of the 15 USCCB regions have yet to receive their dates for the weeklong pilgrimages, which were initially envisioned to be completed by the end of June 2012 in the months prior to Sambi's death. Given current conditions, that timetable would appear difficult to carry out, due to both the long-advanced scheduling of bishops' calendars, and that the time- and labor-intensive Quinquennial Reports on the state of each diocese are usually sought for submission six months in advance of a respective region's visit date.

In the cases of the three US regions already scheduled each group received word of its designated visit-week roughly a year in advance.

Comprising the provinces of Boston and Hartford, Region I begins its visit on 7 November, with New York State's Region II following two weeks later (Thanksgiving Week), and Region III (Pennsylvania and New Jersey) heading in on December 1st.

* * *
Lest there was any doubt of the high regard the "Super-Nuncio" enjoyed, the fairly astonishing tide of lament that followed Sambi's unexpected July death served to confirm what some had long suspected: that in the 120 years of a diplomatic presence of the Holy See among us, the exuberant son of Sogliano whose contagious joy bore a knack for building bridges had, indeed, stood head and shoulders above his predecessors. And not simply because he happened to be tall.

When the news broke, many folks in official circles -- well-accustomed to the motions of public grief -- were overtaken by an unusually strong sense of emotion. And six weeks on, no shortage of church leadership still speaks of remaining "shellshocked" that the Big Boss is gone.

Yet well beyond these, even if one takes the outpouring of episcopal statements at the news as more conspicuous by its absence, it remains a moving testimony that, on his passing, the Nuncio's qualities and caliber of service were recalled fondly by as diverse a cast of characters as Vice-President Biden and the Cardinal Newman Society, America magazine and the National Catholic Reporter, EWTN, Salt + Light and the Huffington Post, the former house organ of the Legionaries of Christ, the president of the University of Notre Dame ... and the list goes on and on, and on.

In case anybody forgot, the above includes several parties who'd have a nearly impossible time agreeing on which way is up... and again, that'd remain the case even if we didn't count the bishops.

Above all, though, much as each person or group brought a unique memory or cause for thanks of their own, in a church whose polarization too often serves to undercut (and, sometimes, even deface) its mission, that seemingly all sides came together as they did added much to the poignancy of the moment. And even in death, it was fittingly bittersweet that one of the few figures who came to be viewed as a friend on practically all sides
of the nation's ecclesial scene offered up one last gift: another opening toward what might've been his greatest wish for the church he leaves behind.

Thanks to his years as part of small, tight-knit, but unusually well-regarded Catholic communities -- and ones often caught in the crossfire of conflict situations in the wider society -- Sambi came to see the unity of the church arguably as its most potent tool. By extension, whenever its own failed to view it as such, or factions lost sight of themselves as belonging to all the others at the end of the day, the energy expended in internal disputes and efforts at surmounting an "other side" of the same Body would only serve to distract from the real reason we're here, resulting in nothing but both the ad intra and extra worlds ending up far worse for it.

If there's one legacy Sambi would've sought for the church on these shores, odds are, if he were asked, a better sense of unity would probably have been it. And, wisely, not without reason, either -- if we don't get that one right, we can pretty much forget about accomplishing anything else.

Just among this readership, many of us of varying stripes knew him, loved him, and are convinced that we'll never see another of his kind again. Especially in this case, though, mourning and remembrance feel like they only go so far; as always happens in a sprawling, energetic but unruly family that can sometimes feel tough to keep together, the loss of one vital link means that the rest who remain each have to work a little harder and take on a little more simply in the attempt to fill a gaping void.

As it should be, tomorrow will serve as the big, public moment of appreciation for Pietro Sambi's life and ministry among us -- a salute he didn't get to receive in life. Impressive and moving as it promises to be, though, the real road of tribute seems to extend far longer and less conspicuously, in the bonds we build and strengthen with each other, especially where it mightn't be the easiest or most convenient.

One day, those of us who knew him will see him again. And if nothing else, the prospect of hearing that wild voice pelting question after question about what we did with what his work after he left should be more than enough to seek to get the job done and do it well.

* * *
So, even for the difficulty of the loss, the last few weeks have felt like one of the funnier, more memorable Irish wakes of recent times... and for it all, these pages never got around to telling what's probably the best story of the boatload: the day Sambi asked how he could run a Google Image search on himself, and what transpired from there.

To be sure, he wasn't perfect -- especially, some say, to work for. Still, as one good friend put it, to no shortage of the people he met these last five years, he was "flawless." And accordingly, when what would prove to be the last hour was at hand, practically no one had any idea.

It seems that the Nuncio had known at least since last Fall that he would need the radical procedure to remove half a cancer-stricken lung, the complications of which ended up claiming him. But he delayed the operation for months to finish as much work as he could -- most importantly leading his niece's wedding on one last trip home to Italy in mid-June.

Yet whether it was among bishops, colleagues or most of his friends, he never said a word. Still, he quietly readied himself for death -- and in retrospect, his final speech to the US bishops at last November's Plenary in Baltimore indicates this.

Six months later, days before he'd sit down at the DC Nunciature to pen the spiritual testament read at his funeral, Sambi made one last domestic trip to celebrate and encourage on one of his favorite crowds -- young people -- giving the commencement speech at Denver's Jesuit-run Regis University.

It would be his final public word on these shores... and here it is:

Just before the operation, in his final conversation with a Stateside friend, all Sambi would say in signing off was, "I need you to pray for me... and I will pray for you, and for your happiness."

Be happy, Big Boss... and on the road ahead, may your spirit of joy and friendship be ever more our own.