As papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi had the formidable job of representing the Vatican at a time of challenge and scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as escorting Pope Benedict XVI on his 2008 American visit. By almost all accounts, he carried out these missions with diplomatic aplomb and Italian charm.
Sambi died Wednesday evening at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore of complications from lung surgery he had undergone about two weeks before, the Vatican announced Thursday. He was 73.
Since his appointment in December 2005, Sambi had the dual task of being the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, with the status and duties of a diplomat, and the pope's representative in dealings with the country's Catholics.
"He was enormously popular," said Father Thomas P. Rausch, a professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University. "He was very outgoing, extroverted, very positive.... My sense is that this man was really loved, which is not always true of those in that office."
Sambi was known for offering espresso and personal tours to visitors at the ambassadorial mansion, across from the U.S. vice president's residence in Washington. More substantively, he was responsible for recommending candidates for bishop to the pope, and he presided over several appointments that put Benedict's stamp on the American church.
These included Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York in 2009, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles in 2010 and, most recently, Archbishop Charles Chaput, who will be taking over the troubled archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Sambi also represented the Vatican in discussions with American bishops about the sexual abuse scandal, much of which occurred under his predecessors. He bluntly told bishops that the scandal had been "a horrible experience which has deprived all of us of our credibility." But he also urged church leaders not to let the turmoil distract them from their mission of spreading the Gospel.
"When so many were discouraged because of the scandal, he brought a message of forgiveness and hope for those who had suffered, as well as a call for the entire Church to make the protection of children our highest priority," Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former leader of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, recalled Thursday on his blog.
Born in 1938 in Rimini, in central Italy, Sambi was ordained a priest in 1964 and later held positions as nuncio to Burundi, Indonesia, Israel and Cyprus. His relations with Israel were sometimes thorny, and he once accused the Jewish state of failing to keep promises to the church regarding land, taxes and Arab clergy.
By most accounts, he acclimated quickly to the United States, and tributes flowed in Thursday from U.S. church leaders.
"Archbishop Sambi understood and loved our nation," said Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "He traveled throughout the country, often to attend the ordination of bishops, always eager to meet the faithful, and to share with them the affection that the Holy Father has for them and their country."
Gomez recalled a phone call from Sambi, notifying him that he would be moving from San Antonio to Los Angeles to succeed the retiring Mahony. "His friendly voice and kind words of encouragement were comforting to me at that surprising moment in my life," Gomez said.