Sambi was an earnest proponent of the freedoms of speech and press. He warmly received journalists in an effort to connect with an American audience that went beyond the capital Beltway region.
The death of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, papal nuncio to the United States for the last five years, is a great loss for the diplomatic community in Washington and for the world.
A veteran diplomat with many years experience in Israel and Palestine, Sambi brought a depth of knowledge and personal credibility to the diplomacy of the Holy See which will be greatly missed.
Prior to his posting in Washington, Sambi was stationed in Cuba, Nicaragua, Belgium and India. As papal representative to Israel and Palestine from 1998 until 2005, he was instrumental in the planning and execution of the Holy Land visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000 and was deeply involved in the Holy See’s diplomacy during the 2006 Lebanon war, where the traditional power-sharing coalition was challenged by the presence of Hezbollah. His personal credibility was important during this war in mobilizing the Christian coalition there.
His Cuba and Nicaragua experience was important in his understanding of the challenges the United States faces in these countries and in expressing the Holy See’s goals for religious freedom and pursuance of the democratic process there. He was nuncio in Nicaragua as the Sandinista revolution took control of the country and challenged church authority and democratic institutions there. He was involved in planning Pope John Paul II’s 1983 visit wherein the pope challenged Daniel Ortega and his government.
While Sambi was in Cuba in an earlier time, from 1974 to 1979, his efforts in working with the local church were valuable in keeping the goals of freedom and tolerance alive. The recent release of the last of the March 2003 political prisoners in Cuba by the Castro government exemplifies the valuable contributions of Holy See diplomacy, the result of many leaders like Sambi.
He was, in short, a most qualified diplomat and a man whose warmth reminded many officials of the first apostolic pro-nuncio to the United states, Cardinal Pio Laghi.
In meetings with him I realized his keen understanding of the unique role of religion and faith in the United States as protected by the First Amendment. He realized, like his predecessor Laghi, that the American experiment of the First Amendment has much to offer the world.
Although it is only natural for a prominent priest to proclaim the importance of religious freedom and its importance in sustaining civil society, Sambi was also an earnest proponent of the freedoms of speech and press. He warmly received journalists in an effort to connect with an American audience that went beyond the capital Beltway region and daily withstood anti-Catholic protesters picketing just outside his office. In times of crisis within the church and without, he resolutely defended the goodness that religion offers the world — peace, justice, love and true individual freedom.
Many times he made a point of explaining that the foundation of the diplomatic mission of the Holy See is rooted squarely in the pursuits of freedom, tolerance and the protection of human dignity. The “soft power” of moral rectitude and persuasion is what drove the archbishop in his work.
His death July 27 following a serious lung operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital is a time for reflection on the 27 years of official recognition between the U.S. government and the Holy See in Vatican City. In that short period, the bilateral relationship has flourished into a deep commitment. 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 United States around the world, which Archbishop Sambi so deeply appreciated and valued.
Rooney was the seventh U.S. ambassador to the Holy See (2005-08) during the President George W. Bush administration. He is CEO of Rooney Holdings Inc. and Manhattan Construction Group, which has a Naples-based subsidiary, Manhattan Kraft Construction. Rooney is on the boards of the Panama Canal Authority, the Florida Gulf Coast University Foundation, the School of International Studies of the University of Oklahoma and NCH Healthcare System