OTTAWA (CCN) — Ambassador Dennis Savoie will never forget the day he was first approached about taking on his current role as Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See.
It was Feb. 11, 2013, the day Pope Benedict resigned, Savoie said in an interview from Rome Feb. 4.
At the time, he was in New Haven, Conn., serving as Deputy Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. “I thought they were calling me for suggestions,” he said. Then, he realized the foreign affairs department was calling to see if he would be interested.
“Obviously, I was shocked,” he said. When he thought of things he might be doing for the rest of his life, being an ambassador was not one of them.
“Because of my work with the Knights at the time, I said, ‘No,’ not because it was not interesting, but I couldn’t just leave the work behind.”
Then, when he resigned from the Knights and prepared to move back to his home province of New Brunswick, in the spring of 2014 he received another call asking if he would be willing to serve. “I was very surprised, again, very honoured,” he said. “Obviously it’s a privilege to be asked to serve your country especially in this kind of role.”
Though the ambassador had a long business career that included 27 years at New Brunswick Power Corporation, retiring as vice-president, he thinks his role at the Knights best prepared him for his new job. He has been involved with the Knights for more than 40 years, and started serving as second in command of the organization in October 2006 until December 2013. “I basically grew up with the Knights,” he said.
Savoie also had a less publicly known role as a member of the board of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF). He described the experience of his several years with COLF as like “going to school on some very important and complex issues” and being “able to learn from the many experts” COLF was able to bring around the table.
Though Savoie had met Pope Francis previously as Deputy Supreme Knight, the ceremony Dec. 15 when he presented his credentials to the Holy Father was “quite an experience.”
That morning, a papal attendant arrived at the embassy to escort the ambassador, his wife Claudette and his two children, Marc and Brigitte, to the Apostolic Palace. There, some Swiss Guards joined his escort. At the papal apartment, they were welcomed by the Prefect of the Pontifical Household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who accompanied them to the pope’s library.
The new ambassador had 15-20 minutes alone with the Holy Father. “Of course there’s a certain amount of nervousness going in,” he said. “I had never done this before.”
But he found Pope Francis put him immediately at ease. They spoke on a range of topics for 15 to 20 minutes.
After the private meeting, the pope met with Savoie’s son Marc and daughter Brigitte and the staff members of the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See. “The pope took his time, he greeted everybody, talked to everybody and we took pictures.”
Though Savoie has experienced moves during his career, the move to Rome involves not only a foreign country, but a different language and culture. He and his wife Claudette did two weeks of total-immersion Italian language training when they arrived and have begun private tutoring. “Rome is a big city, a very busy city but it’s interesting.”
“I’m still on my learning curve here and will be for a little while as I observe and as I feel my way around,” said the ambassador. But he already sees many areas of mutual interest between Canada and the Holy See, among them concerns for religious freedom, social justice, human rights, immigration and interfaith dialogue.
“There are no shortages of topics,” he said. “One of the challenges I see is to be able to identify those areas that would be of mutual interest and areas where we could collaborate with the Vatican to move certain things forward.”
He noted the ambassador from the United Kingdom proposed last fall that Commonwealth countries look at whether they might have common projects to propose.
While the Vatican City State may be very small in size relative to other sovereign states, the Holy See represents 1.3 billion people, Savoie said. “It’s important to be here. The networking that the Holy See offers us is unlike any other country. The Holy See is basically everywhere, so it’s going to be interesting.