May 16, 2008

'Never lose hope for peace': During Indiana visit, papal nuncio reflects on the Church in the Holy Land

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, speaks on May 3 at the Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis during a fundraising dinner sponsored by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. The dinner supported the Franciscan Boys Home in Bethlehem. Photos of the home’s residents are displayed next to Archbishop Sambi. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, speaks on May 3 at the Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis during a fundraising dinner sponsored by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. The dinner supported the Franciscan Boys Home in Bethlehem. Photos of the home’s residents are displayed next to Archbishop Sambi. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview with Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Sambi visited Indianapolis in early May. Because of space constraints, some of Archbishop Sambi’s responses had to be edited.)

By Sean Gallagher

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who as apostolic nuncio to the United States is Pope Benedict XVI’s ambassador to America and the Holy See’s liaison to the Church in this country, visited Indianapolis on May 3.

The archbishop’s primary reason for coming to Indiana was to participate in a fundraising dinner sponsored by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land to support a home for boys in Bethlehem. (Click here for related story)

The residents are students at a nearby Franciscan-run school. They come from families where they have experienced physical abuse or where their parents are substance abusers or suffer from alcoholism.

Archbishop Sambi has a particular interest in the Church in the Holy Land because he served on the staff of the Holy See’s nunciature there in the early 1970s, and later as nuncio to Israel and Palestine from 1998 to 2005.

In addition to serving in the Holy Land and the United States, Archbishop Sambi, in his nearly 40 years of ministry as a Vatican diplomat, has been assigned to Indonesia, Burundi, Cameroon, Cuba, Algeria, Nicaragua, Belgium and India.

Prior to the fundraising dinner, the globe-trotting archbishop, born in northern Italy, sat down for an interview with The Criterion.

Q: Having served as the Holy See’s ambassador to Israel and Palestine for several years, how do you judge from your experience the importance of the work of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land in supporting the Church there?

A: The work of the Franciscans is extremely precious. During my 12 years in the Holy Land, I could measure the preciousness of the presence and the work of the Franciscans.

Being animated by the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, they are there as an instrument of peace. They repeat every day the prayer of St. Francis, “Make me an instrument of peace. Where there is hatred, make me put love.”

But they are also the supporter of the Christian community. The biggest parishes are in the hands of the Franciscans: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem. But they care about the Christian community in other aspects: schools, homes for elders, homes for abandoned children or who have families in difficulties, as the boys’ home that they are building now in Bethlehem. …

So it’s a presence that’s indispensable for the continuity of the Christian community in the holy places and around the sanctuary of Christianity.

Q: And now, having served as the apostolic nuncio in the United States for more than two years, how do you judge the importance of the support given to the foundation by Catholics in this country?

A: Next year, it will be 40 years that I will have been abroad representing the Holy Father in all parts of the world. Everywhere, I have found signs of the charity of the Catholics of America and of the American people.

As to the Holy Land, the supporters of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land are mainly from the United States.

But I would say that the help that can be given to the Holy Land are two kinds. One is financial contributions so as to help the Franciscans to [preserve] two things: the sacred stones and the living stones [a reference to 1 Pt 2:4-5].

The sacred stones are the places linked to the life of Jesus Christ and of our redemption. The living stones are the Christian community in the Holy Land.

But there is another way to be of help to the living stones.

It’s pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

When the small minority of Christians in the Holy Land see a lot of pilgrims going there, they say to themselves, “It’s very important for us to stay here if so many people from around the world come here.”

And they feel a kind of psychological support, human support to continue to stay there as guardians, in the name of all Christianity, around the places that are sacred to the Christian people.

Q: Our archdiocese is sponsoring a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that will be led, God willing, by Archbishop [Daniel M.] Buechlein in September.

A: I pray that his health will be good enough because it will be an experience to go with your archbishop to the birthplace of Jesus Christ, but also to the birthplace of the Church.

Q: What would you say is the most important thing for Catholics here to know about the current state of the Church in the Holy Land?

A: It would be interesting to know the history. The Franciscans have given up their lives for the defense of … the holy places.

But I will tell you one case of which I have been a witness. When the Basilica of the Nativity was occupied in 2001 inside by the Palestinian soldiers and outside by the Israeli soldiers, I had a great preoccupation, that the place of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, would be covered by human blood and by the destruction of one of the most ancient basilicas that exists in the world. It dates from the time of the emperor Constantine and was built by his mother, Helen.

At a certain moment, the Franciscans asked me, “Should we remain here at the danger of our lives?” I did not feel courage enough to take the responsibility for their lives. So I put myself in communication with the Holy Father, [Pope] John Paul II.

And his answer was, “I cannot impose on anybody to be a martyr. But tell them that if they will remain, I will pray every day for them.” And the Franciscans remained.

Q: It has been said that the Church in the Holy Land is caught between a hammer and an anvil in the difficult conditions brought about for it, on the one hand, by the Israeli government and, on the other, by Palestinian leaders, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Do you think this is a valid characterization?

A: This is always the condition of minorities. The Christian community is a minority in the Holy Land in relation to the Israeli people and to the Palestinian people. And they receive problems from both sides.

I am convinced also of another thing: that love is stronger than any racial difference or than any conflict. …

Maybe the small Christian community in the Holy Land must take more courage and be more faithful to the commandment of God, of the Lord, to love even their enemies, to become a more efficient instrument of peace.

It’s true that it is in a very difficult situation from the Israeli side, and from the Palestinian and Islamic side. But we should never lose hope for peace because the day we say that peace is impossible, we will put ourselves like this [crossing his arms across his chest] and any creativity will be lost.

So, despite all the difficulties, we have to encourage the Christians to remain there and to work for peace.

Q: How can the Church in the United States and, perhaps, the United States government, help improve that situation for the Church there? It’s almost, as with the Church in Iraq, that the Church there is off to the side. It’s such a small minority that it’s not even thought of.

A: When speaking with the people in the Holy Land, their way of reasoning was this: “We were born here. We will continue to stay here. But what future is there here for our children?”

And then the answer is emigration. Why emigration? Because there is not a perspective of stable peace and a stable economic situation. And you cannot program your future where you don’t have the perspective of peace and the perspective of a stable economic situation.

What should be done is to create conditions of peace and to create the condition of a stable economic situation—because without this the young people will continue to emigrate.

The Church should contribute to this peace. But the reasons of peace, the way of peace, the means of peace are in the hands of political authorities. †

(Web extra: Click here to read Archbishop Sambi’s reflections on the role of interfaith relations and dialogue in the life of the Church)

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