Sambi, who was based in Washington and had a long diplomatic career in the church, had been put on ventilation following lung surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore two weeks ago.
As apostolic nuncio for the United States, Sambi served dual roles as a top official in the church hierarchy and a representative to the U.S. government. During Pope Benedict’s 2008 trip to the United States, Sambi accompanied the pontiff and hosted him in Washington, where Benedict met with five victims of clergy sex abuse.
Monsignor Walter Rossi, rector of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, said Sambi was a “great combination.”
“He was the consummate diplomat. He was a wonderful priest. He had what he always referred to as the ‘pastoral smell.’ In other words, he was good with people and compassionate with people. He was easy to be with.”
George Weigel, a papal biographer, described Sambi as a “gregarious pastor” who was well liked among Catholics in the United States.
Before arriving in the United States, Sambi served in a number of diplomatic posts for the church over the previous three decades. In 1998, Pope John Paul II appointed Sambi as the only the second Vatican ambassador to Israel, after the church and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1994.
Sambi helped arrange Pope John Paul II’s historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000 but also stirred controversy in 2007 when he accused Israel of dragging its heels over implementing a 1993 treaty between Israel and the Catholic Church. The Vatican distanced itself from Sambi’s comments.
Sambi also held posts in Cuba, Nicaragua, Belgium, India and other countries. He was made an archbishop in 1985 and was ordained a priest in 1964. He was born in Italy.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said Sambi “understood and loved our nation.”
“He ... was always eager to meet the faithful, and to share with them the affection that the Holy Father has for them and their country,” Dolan said.