Bishop Austin Vetter of the Helena Roman Catholic Diocese returned last week from a trip to Rome and a meeting with the Pope.
“[Pope Francis] said, ‘You’re so young’ and I said, ‘That’s your fault. You picked me.’ He laughed and we just had a wonderful exchange,” said Bishop Vetter.
This was Bishop Vetter’s first meeting with Pope Francis after being installed as the 11th bishop of Helena in November.
Vetter was summoned to Rome along with Bishop Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings Diocese, and the bishops and archbishops from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska for Ad Limina Apostolorum, or "at the threshold of the Apostles" visit. A pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostles St.. Peter and St. Paul is canonically required of every bishop every three to ten years.
The clergy had a two and a half hour meeting with the Pope. Vetter said Pope Francis told the 16 bishops to discuss whatever was on their minds.
“It was so touching and very moving for me,” said Bishop Vetter. “We believe as Catholics Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ on earth, that he is the successor of St. Peter. Just as Peter encouraged those first apostles, here Pope Francis was encouraging us.”
Vetter says he was touched by how human and personable Pope Francis was during the meeting. After all, Pope Francis was first Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
“He seemed to get more energized as the hour went on,” said Bishop Vetter. “You can see it in the photos, he was more excited to meet me than and I was him. That’s really the experience I had. He gives his full attention to each person... He really modeled for me how I should be, especially with the priests of the Diocese of Helena, being able to have good give and takes with each other. That we’re coworkers in the same vineyard.”
Bishop Vetter also had a chance to visit his alma mater while in Rome, the Pontifical North American College and the University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He also served as Director of Spiritual Formation at the college from July 2012 through June 2018.
“We had one extra day so we had mass at the North American College and they asked me to be the celebrant and to preach,” said Bishop Vetter. “That was very touching. I was more nervous that mass than I was all 6 years I was there. I knew most of the house.”
Vetter says he was also heartened to see the young priests training as he did all those years ago.
“You can see the activity of God much more clearly sometime than the person. But you have to be patient and let them come to see it. They’re wondering if God is calling them to become a priest, and many times I’m sitting there saying ‘it’s so obvious,’” said Bishop Vetter.