By Sean Gallagher
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, was one of the key figures involved in planning Pope Benedict XVI's April 15-20 visit to Washington, D.C., and New York, and was by the pope's side during every step of the trip.
It was at Archbishop Sambi's residence in the nation's capital that the pope met privately with five victims of clerical sex abuse, a moment widely interpreted as a turning point in healing for the Church in America.
With the advantage of a month's perspective, the archbishop tells Our Sunday Visitor what he thought were the trip's highpoints -- and dispels some misinterpretation.
Our Sunday Visitor: Now that, in a sense, the "dust has settled" from Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, what would you say was the significance of it for the Church in this country?
Archbishop Pietro Sambi: I think that the meaning of this pastoral journey to the United States was clearly explained by Benedict XVI himself: "I go to confirm my brothers and sisters in faith." This is the mandate that our Lord Jesus Christ has given to Peter and to his successors.
But the pope, in a comment that he made [afterward] in Rome, said something extremely important: 'I went to the United States to confirm my brothers and sisters in the faith. And they confirmed me in hope.'
OSV: Do you think that what the pope did and said here and how he was received has significance for the Church in other parts of the world, perhaps in Europe and other places, where secularism has taken a stronger hold than here?
Archbishop Sambi: I have said from the beginning that, given the power of the mass media in the United States, a successful visit of the pope in the United States would be a successful visit in the world, just as a failure of the visit of the pope in the United States would be a failure of the visit all over the world.
And, really, the mass media played a very positive role, and they presented the visit of the Holy Father to the United States in an exceptional way.
You have seen that the pope is, as a caricature, intimidating personally. Even so, you have seen his joy, his smile, his open arms to the American people.
I remember that one newspaper asked me, 'Does Benedict XVI love the American people?' I answered that it is a tradition almost all over the world that anniversaries are celebrated in the family. And Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to celebrate his birthday and to celebrate the anniversary of his election as pope in the United States. You can make your own conclusions.
OSV: Was there any particular event or moment during Pope Benedict's visit here that had a special significance for you personally?
Archbishop Sambi: His Eucharistic celebrations at Nationals Stadium in Washington and at Yankee Stadium in New York. The Holy Father is impressive when he is celebrating the Eucharist. I receive the impression that when he speaks, he would like to disappear so that, through his voice, it would be Christ himself speaking to the people.
And when the Lord is present on the altar after the consecration, the pope would like to disappear so the people will see Jesus Christ in the midst of them.
OSV: During his meeting with the U.S. bishops, the pope, quoting Chicago Cardinal Francis George [president of the U.S. bishops' conference], noted that some U.S. bishops had handled badly some of the sexual abuse cases. Many people in the media, who were skeptical before the pope, were very pleased by the trip. But they still thought, "Why haven't any of these bishops who handled cases badly been disciplined in a pubic way?"
How would you respond to a question like that?
Archbishop Sambi: You need to read what is written. The pope quoted a phrase of Cardinal George referring to the past. There is a phrase to the priests in St. Patrick's in New York in which the pope, already responding to this kind of rumor, said to the priests to be in solidarity with their bishops, who will continue to repair the damage created by the sex scandal and to renovate the Church on this aspect.
So the pope did not make a reproach to the bishops of today. He said, according to the phrase of Cardinal George, that, in the past, some bishops have handled this question badly. But he recognized how the bishops of yesterday and the bishop of today are really honest and engaged in solving this problem.
OSV: So maybe those who may have made mistakes in the past recognized their mistakes and are not making those mistakes again?
Archbishop Sambi: Yes. But you have to know that almost the totality of the bishops of today have to face the consequences of mistakes that were made before they were bishops, before they were responsible. And it is not easy to spend so much of your time, of your human and psychological energy, and of the money of the diocese for mistakes that you have not committed.
There's only one example to follow: Jesus assumed on himself the sins that he did not commit, our sins.
OSV: Shortly before Pope Benedict's visit here, you said that "our primary goal with the victims is to help them heal from this very deep hurt that has been imposed on them." How do you think that goal may have been advanced by the meeting the pope had with a group of victims that happened in your home?
Archbishop Sambi: Exactly. I was present.
It was an extremely moving moment, full of emotion from every side. I think that these persons will never forget their meeting with the pope. And after the pope left, I saw on their faces and in their words and in their attitudes the sense of liberation from what they suffered.
What I want to say is this: We're helping these people who really need help -- not those who are trying to gain money with them -- but those who are trying to re-establish their confidence in love, their confidence in life, and their confidence in others and in the Church.
These five persons, as the long list of the many others that I have followed in the same way, in some way, they have found again the joy of living. One of these ladies will be married in the next month.
OSV: Is there anything you'd like to say to Catholic Americans?
Archbishop Sambi: I would like to say to the Catholics of the United States that if our sins are humiliating us, we must always be grateful for the faith we receive in Jesus Christ and grateful for the gift of belonging to the Church.
So, as an expression of this gratitude, we should continue to announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And we should be proud to witness Jesus Christ in the society in which we live. This is the first sign of the Resurrection: to be grateful for what God has given us.
Italian Archbishop Pietro Sambi, 70, was named papal ambassador to the United States at the end of 2005, after serving in a string of the world's hot spots, including seven years in the Holy Land.
He started his service in the Church's diplomatic corps in 1969, in Cameroon. That was followed by stints in Cuba, Algeria, Nicaragua, Belgium, India, Burundi and Indonesia.
Affable and gregarious, Archbishop Sambi's job includes not only serving as the pope's representative to the U.S. government but also as liaison for the local Church.
One of his most important duties is to compile names of candidates to serve as new bishops.
Sean Gallagher writes from Indiana.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Catholic Faith Resources | For Catholic Parishes | Order OSV Products | RSS | Advertise | About Us | Contact Us | Jobs