In today’s hostile world, religious leaders of all faiths need to answer another high calling—to unite rather than divide—according to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s envoy in Washington and a man who practices what he preaches.
Sambi believes religions should be a force for cohesion and healing rather than acrimony and conflict, and he has engaged in a kind of spiritual diplomacy to build bridges between nations and peoples during his 43-year priesthood, which has taken him to hotspots around the world ranging from Israel to Cuba.
“Religion is—and must be—an instrument of peace. Historically, religion has sometimes been an instrument of conflict. I think the youth will abandon their religion if it is an instrument of conflict. The mission of religion is peace—between individuals and God, and between individuals,” he told The Washington Diplomat.
“And a diplomat’s mission is the creation of bridges. Diplomats are human beings with our beautiful days and dark days, with our efforts to overcome ourselves and to be better. You can build bridges when you give of yourself and exchange truth.”
Warm and charismatic, Sambi is the Holy See’s apostolic nuncio to the United States, serving as Pope Benedict XVI’s official ambassador here. He is also widely seen as one of the Vatican’s most experienced and able diplomats.
Born in the Northern Italian town of Sogliano sul Rubicone on June 27, 1938, Sambi was ordained a priest in 1964. With a passion for history, he initially dreamed of life as a priest and as a professor of history. Speaking with a broad smile, Sambi is quick to say that his career in diplomacy was chosen for him.
“In the Catholic Church, you cannot ask to enter the diplomatic service,” he says. “If you ask, you will surely be rejected. You are called.”
Sambi was called into diplomatic service in 1969 as an attaché in Cameroon. Later, he was assigned to Jerusalem in 1971, Cuba in 1974, Algeria in 1978, Nicaragua in 1979, Belgium in 1981 and India in 1984. Sambi was also the Holy See’s apostolic nuncio to Israel, Cyprus, Burundi and Indonesia, as well as apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine from 1998 to 2005.
Pope Benedict appointed Sambi to Washington in late 2005. He officially began his work as apostolic nuncio on March 9, 2006—with concurrent accreditation to the Organization of American States—serving as the highest-ranking Catholic official in the United States.
Sambi says that each of his postings has influenced him in personal and professional ways. During his time in the Middle East, for instance, both Jews and Arabs came to view him as fair-minded and forceful. 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.
As nuncio in Israel, he criticized Israel for building walls to separate Israelis from Palestinians, calling it a “shame to humanity,” as well as for failing to take practical measures to implement the accords reached with the Holy See in 1993 and 1994.
But he’s also taken aim at Palestinian officials for anti-Semitism. In 2003, Sambi brought some Palestinian textbooks to the Vatican, which criticized the books as anti-Semitic and urged the Italian government not to provide any further funds for the Palestinian Ministry of Education.
In addition, Sambi has been a vocal defender of the rights of the Christian minority in the Holy Land. During his tenure as nuncio in Israel, he pushed for Jerusalem to have a special status that would provide the three monotheistic religions access to holy sites.
Sambi acknowledges that Middle East diplomacy is very difficult and that to be effective in the region, diplomats must be scrupulously fair. “Each side tries to take you completely on his own side,” he says. “If you do this, you can go home. Your mission is finished. You should not let yourself be identified with either of the contenders.”
Sambi says that during his time in the Middle East, he tried to reach out to all parties of goodwill and impart a simple message: “Peace is not a defeat for anybody. Peace is victory for everybody and for the future.”
But he admits that tragedies of the past continue to burden the region. “This is a conflict that has been going on since at least 1948. In almost every family you have the memory of someone who has been killed. So the past is of great weight in the present. But fear of the future is of even greater weight.”
Sambi passionately believes that the solution to the struggles of the Middle East is not the separation of the Jewish and Arab peoples. “The Holy Land does not need walls. It needs bridges. As a professor of history, I’ve never seen any example that the construction of a wall led to peace. To build a wall is a manifestation that you want to impose a solution,” he argues. “Peace can never be imposed. It will not last. Peace is always the result of an agreement with mutual trust.”
Sambi also believes that hope for the future is essential to solving any international problem. “When you become convinced there is no hope for peace, you stop working for peace. You abandon any initiative. You give space to those who have an interest in war, not peace,” he says. “I believe that human beings are greater than these problems and that earlier rather than later, before the Holy Land becomes just a cemetery, there will be peace.”
Spiritually, Sambi says his work in the Middle East was deeply satisfying. “From the Christian point of view, being in Jerusalem was the most important place because every stone helps you understand the history of man, his relationship to God, his tragedy and his blessings, and his Salvation.
“But of course, here in the United States, because of the influence this country has on the rest of the world, I feel such a sense of responsibility in my work,” he adds.
In its current territorial iteration, the Holy See is the smallest country in the world, resting on 109 acres. The Holy See refers to the authority, jurisdiction and sovereignty invested in the pope and his advisers to direct the Roman Catholic Church.
As the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See has a legal status that allows it to enter into treaties like a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives.
In fact, the Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 175 nations, and 78 nations maintain permanent resident missions accredited to the Holy See in Rome. The rest have missions located outside of Italy with dual accreditation. In turn, the Holy See maintains 106 permanent diplomatic missions in capitals around the world, with two separate missions to the European Union and the Russian Federation.
Despite its small size territorially, the Vatican represents the estimated 1 billion Catholics worldwide (some one-sixth of the world’s population), and although the church has seen a downward trend in the number of followers over the years, Sambi views the Holy See as having been a positive force in international diplomacy for centuries—something that continues to this day with Pope Benedict XVI.
Sambi is Benedict’s main liaison with the American Catholic Church. He speaks frequently and admiringly of Pope John Paul II as well as of Pope Benedict XVI, whom he says has been important in advancing the message of the church.
“Benedict is one of the great thinkers of our time. He is very deep in his analysis of the human being in our time and very deep in his analysis of the place of God in the salvation of the human being,” Sambi says. “I would describe Pope Benedict as an old man with a young faith in Jesus Christ, his church and in human beings,” he adds.
American Catholics will get a first-hand look at Pope Benedict in April 2008 when he visits Washington and New York in what will be the first papal visit to the United States since 1999. Coming on the eve of his 81st birthday, the trip marks Benedict’s eighth foreign journey since becoming head of the Catholic Church in April 2005.
During that brief tenure, however, Benedict has sparked controversy. His references to the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church have angered many non-Catholics and his strong and vocal opposition to abortion rights have generated criticism from pro-choice Catholics. In addition, his decision to ban gay men from the priesthood has sparked a debate among Catholics around the world—as have his ideas on changing the Church’s liturgy.
Last year, during a much-anticipated visit to Turkey, the pope suggested that Islam was inclined toward violence, a comment that infuriated many in the Muslim world and spurred angry calls for a papal apology. Vatican officials said his comments were taken out of context and that the pontiff is committed to a respectful dialogue with the Islamic world.
More recently, Benedict met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the Vatican, a meeting that garnered much interest because it was one of his first meetings with a Muslim leader. The session was described as cordial, and Benedict has said he wants to reach out to all countries that don’t have formal relations with the Vatican, which includes Saudi Arabia, as well as China—whose government Benedict has clashed with over its desire to ordain bishops in China without the approval of the Vatican.
Benedict is also clearly trying to reach out to the dwindling numbers of Catholics in the United States with his upcoming April visit. Currently, the American Catholic Church still has about 67 million members, making it the largest religious denomination in the country. The United States has the third largest population of Catholics in the world, after Brazil and Mexico.
“We should make the visit of the pope a moment of assurance to those who have left the church in the last year, an invitation to return,” Sambi said on Nov. 12 during an address to the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. “This is possible to think less to the suffering of the past and more to the problem of the future.”
During his U.S. visit, the pope will make a stop at the White House, meet with American bishops, celebrate mass at the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium, address the United Nations, meet with other religious leaders and visit ground zero in New York.
Interestingly, some have noted that the pope’s visit does not include Boston, a center of American Catholicism and one of the communities most affected by the wave of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church and shaken the faithful in recent years.
In fact, Sambi himself has a constant reminder of those scandals. That’s because the Holy See Embassy, which is located right off Observatory Circle facing the vice president’s home, is also the site of an unusual protester—a man named John Wojnowski, who has made a daily stand along Massachusetts Avenue since 1998, denouncing the church with slogans such as, “My life was ruined by a pedophile priest.”
In addition to widely publicized sex scandals, the American Catholic Church has gone through difficult times in recent years, suffering from lawsuits, financial problems, declining numbers of priests and nuns, and an exodus of followers to other faiths.
Sambi acknowledges these problems, but insists that the American church remains vibrant and strong. He points out that large numbers of American Catholics attend mass regularly and give generously to charities. Sambi also argues that the tragedy of the sex crisis has forced the church to acknowledge its failings and rediscover its mission.
“The sex scandal is a call to the church to greater fidelity,” he says. “This is the secret of the church to make even a failure an occasion of conversion, of identity. This is the only way to go forward. I think this process is very strong inside the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church will come out of this situation stronger and more rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The 13th representative of the Holy See to serve in the United States, Sambi presides over an embassy staff of about 25 and works with the Bush administration and Congress.
Sambi begins most of his days at 6 a.m., with a private prayer and then a mass with his colleagues at the embassy. He is at his desk by 8 a.m. and spends his days in meetings, on the phone, and attending receptions. He is also very involved in the selection of bishops in the United States.
“I try to open the doors and see a lot of people. To know a country and a church, it is important to meet a lot of people. Usually they enrich you very much,” he says.
He also uses the Internet, but laughingly says he is hardly an expert. “I started pretty late but today it has become an indispensable tool for my work. The church should use it more as a way to reach more people, especially the young.”
In the evenings, Sambi enjoys reading, and especially has a passion for history. “If you find me on a plane, 90 percent of the time you will see me with a book of history. The past is always an influence on the future and on the present. To understand the present, it is always useful to understand the past.”
One of Sambi’s other lifelong passions is interfaith dialogue. He believes that religious leaders need to meet, learn from each other, and find common ground.
Shortly after arriving in Washington, he attended a conference at Georgetown Univer-sity with other Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders. It was a powerful experience that prompted an epiphany of sorts.
“At Georgetown, I saw Jewish and Christian and Muslim leaders walk together, hand in hand, as sign of brotherhood. But I’ve never seen this in Jerusalem, or Cairo, or Beirut or Amman. Why is it possible in Washington but not in these other places? I think there is one reason: freedom. When you are free, there is the possibility of brotherhood and fraternity. If you don’t have freedom, it’s difficult to discuss this publicly.”
Reflecting on his long and consequential career in diplomacy, Sambi says it has been full of surprises but deeply gratifying. “I thank God who called me to do this service in the church. I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about reconciliation, about the world, about human beings throughout the world,” he says.
“I’ve discovered that everywhere human beings are born the same way, and what makes them happy or sad is more or less the same. They all die, bringing nothing with them. But if they are to improve themselves and the reality around them a little bit, it will be a good contribution. We cannot change the world. But we can change ourselves. When we improve ourselves, we help improve humanity a little.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.