The death of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Papal Nuncio (the Vatican’s permanent diplomatic representative) to the United States for the last five years, is a great loss for the diplomatic community in Washington, D.C. Many would be hard-pressed to explain or appreciate the nature of Sambi’s work, but his passing is an opportune time to examine his importance in advancing the aims of the Holy See in global diplomacy.
The Catholic Church has a long history of diplomacy and in fact established Europe’s first school of diplomacy, the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in 1701. Overseeing an extensive network of local priests and nun around the world, the Church continues to be privy to copious amounts of on-the-ground data which is relayed back to Rome where it is incorporated into positions of policy. Thus the Church has long been the great “listening-post” of Europe because these information channels provided reliable information about volatile matters like famine and insurrection. Although the formation of the Italian state in the 1860s deprived the papacy of its formal territorial holdings, the Holy See’s active engagement in world affairs warranted the Italian government to recognize its sovereignty in the 1929 Lateran Treaty. This long storied diplomatic tradition is the background for Sambi’s distinguished career.
With postings in Burundi, Belgium, Cameroon, Cuba, Indonesia, Cyprus, Israel-Palestine, and the United States, the life of Italian-born Sambi exemplifies the global character of the Catholic Church. For centuries Catholic missionaries have traveled and labored all over the world, helping to plant the seeds of justice and respect for human dignity, and to create viable civic institutions. In these respects the Catholic Church remains an important local partner for many states. In Haiti, Catholic Relief Services is the most trusted aid organization because it has shown ongoing commitment despite the setbacks that derailed numerous state-led aid initiatives. In Burundi, one of the ten poorest countries in the world, the Church provides indispensable aid to many of the state’s ten million citizens. In fact, 27 percent of AIDS victims are treated in Catholic healthcare institutions.
In Latin America, the Holy See maintains observer status in the Organization for American States; a gesture that highlights the historical importance of Catholic institutions in the region. Pope John Paul II delivered a terrific blow to the Castro government’s obstinate status quo when he gave a public mass in Havana, Cuba in 1999. The Church’s Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, and Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega also successfully negotiated an agreement between Cuba and Spain that allowed 52 Cuban political prisoners held since March 2003 to immigrate to Spain under provisions of political asylum. Important groundwork for these successes was laid during Archbishop Sambi’s service in Cuba from 1974 to 1979, when during difficult years there flickers of freedom and opposition to the abusive regime were nurtured.
In the Middle East, Sambi helped execute the Catholic Church’s mission of defending religious freedom for all Christians, Jews, and Muslims. As papal representative to Israel and Palestine, Sambi was instrumental in the historic Holy Land visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000. Archbishop Sambi’s personal credibility was important during the 2006 war in Lebanon and his efforts helped mobilize Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics and their support of a ceasefire. With his help, great strides were made to alleviate Christian-Muslim tensions in that country. Very few people had the hands-on experience in the Middle East of Archbishop Sambi, and his perspective will be sorely missed.
Like his predecessor Cardinal Pio Laghi, Pietro Sambi realized that the unique role of religion and faith in the United States has much to offer the world, and succeeded in conveying this realization to a heavily Europeanized Church leadership. Whereas many European states rely on government machinery to effect charitable programs, these projects are accomplished in America by individuals and private charitable organizations, thereby personalizing charitable work and bringing compassion and human interaction to the forefront. In this regard, Vatican officials were encouraged by the Bush White House’s private charity efforts and its coordinating and nurturing—but not controlling—charitable activities through the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.
Sambi was an earnest proponent of the freedoms of speech and press because media coverage magnifies the needed but often silenced call by the Church for peace and justice. Many American Catholics at one time or another saw an energetic Sambi warmly receiving journalists in an effort to connect with a wider American audience. He continued this engagement with great vigor and warmth despite some negative coverage and the routine anti-Catholic protests outside his office.
In times of crisis within the Church and without, Sambi resolutely defended the goodness that religion offers the world—peace, justice, tolerance, and true individual freedom. As it has evolved, the universal message conveyed by the Holy See highlights individuals’ religious freedom and governments’ pursuit of the democratic process. The Holy See rejects monopolistic religion intolerant of other faiths as fervently as it rejects the legitimacy of militant authoritarianism. Freedom of conscience, according to Holy See officials, is a primeval right that is the foundation of all other human rights.
The death of Archbishop Sambi following a serious lung operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital is a time for reflection on the twenty-seven years of official diplomatic recognition between the U.S. government and the Holy See. In that short period, the bilateral relationship has flourished into a deep, mutual commitment to work together to advance our common goals and a strong partnership for the promotion of human dignity and religious freedom. It is a natural relationship for the United States—a country explicitly founded by those seeking freedom from tyranny and the protection of their inalienable rights. Together, the world’s most influential state and the world’s smallest sovereign state combine to address serious problems like human trafficking, extremist violence and religious intolerance.
As I mourn the loss of my friend, laid to rest in his hometown of Sogliano al Rubicone, Italy, I am thankful for his witness and example, and also have to pause and reflect on the moral leadership of the Holy See around the world, which Archbishop Sambi so deeply appreciated and valued.
Francis Rooney was the seventh U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See (2005-2008) during the George W. Bush Administration.
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