Pope Benedict XVI appointed this Saturday Archbishop Pietro Sambi, widely regarded as one of the Vatican’s most able diplomats, as the new Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. He replaces Colombian-born Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, whose resignation was accepted upon his reaching the age limit of 75.
Pietro Sambi was born in the Northern Italian town of Sogliano sul Rubicone on June 27, 1938, and was ordained a priest on March 14, 1964, for the diocese of Montefeltro. Also fluent in English, Spanish, and French, Archbishop Sambi holds doctorate degrees in Theology and Canon Law.
He joined the Vatican diplomatic service in 1969 and served in the Nunciatures or Apostolic Delegations to Cameroon, Jerusalem, Cuba, Algeria, Nicaragua, Belgium, and India. In 1991 he was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Indonesia and in 1998 was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Israel and Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine.
Both Jews and Palestinians regarded Archbishop Sambi as a courageous, uncompromising voice for peace, and as scrupulously fair with both sides.
He negotiated to free the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem after it became the site of a standoff between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces. He stressed that “this is the time to abide by the words and concepts that were born here: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, peace, resurrection.”
“Although today these words seem to be meaningless, they are the only principles that can foster the dialogue needed to build a future of peace, safety, and mutual understanding.”
As Nuncio in Israel, Sambi also criticized the building of the wall to separate Israel from the Palestinian territories as "a shame to humanity." "This region requires bridges, not walls," he said.
On July 12 this year, when John Paul II was being commemorated in the Israeli parliament, Sambi delivered a speech complaining about Israel's failure to take practical measures to implement the accords with the Holy See reached in 1993 and 1994.
But the Nuncio was also strong in criticizing the anti-Semitism sponsored by some Palestinian authorities. In 2003, Sambi took Palestinian schoolbooks to the Vatican for review. The Holy See condemned the books as virulently anti-Semitic and asked the Italian government not to provide any further funds for the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Italy has since refused to provide further money.
In March 2003, Sambi addressed a visiting US Congressional delegation and shared a warning from the Vatican that the new constitution prepared by the Palestinian National Authority for the emerging Palestinian State was based on the most fundamentalist Islamic interpretation of the Sharia Law, and that the constitution for the emerging Palestinian state allowed for no recognition for the juridical status for Judaism or for Christianity.
Sambi has also been a vocal defender of the rights of the Christian minority in the Holy Land. “It is our duty to help Christians in the Holy Land, help them not to become spiritually and morally prisoners of the conflict,” he told earlier this year to an Italian radio network.
During his difficult tenure as Nuncio in Israel, Archbishop Sambi pushed for a special status for Jerusalem that would safeguard the freedom of religion for all, equality before the law for the three monotheistic religions, the proper identity and sacred character of the city and its universally significant religious and cultural heritage, as well as freedom of access to and worship in the holy places.
Archbishop Sambi, an avid Internet user, has two fields of interest: priestly formation and Catholic higher education. He graduated from seminary with a thesis on the Bishop of Montefeltro, who dramatically reformed the priesthood in the early 20th Century. Before joining the Vatican diplomatic service, he was made responsible for the formation of priests at the Diocesan Seminary of Pennabilli. Later, he became Vice Rector of Pennabilli. As Nuncio, he involved himself in priestly formation in all of the countries he served.
Despite serving abroad for many years, he always kept a connection with Catholic universities in Northern Italy and took seriously his appointment as Chancellor of Bethlehem University in the Holy Land, contributing to the strengthening of its Catholic identity and expanding the University’s ties with other Catholic Universities abroad.