GREAT FALLS — It is back to school season, and that holds true even for church leaders.
Bishop Austin Vetter of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helenaand Bishop Jeffrey Fleming of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls Billings, recently returned from a trip to Rome where they took part in a new bishop's school. Vetter:
“They affectionately call it Baby Bishop's School,” said Bishop Vetter.
“It was just great being with bishops from around the world,” said Bishop Fleming.
The Montana Catholic Bishops are back in Big Sky Country, after spending a week with 115 other new Catholic Bishops..
“It was really one of the great highlights. Getting to know them and hearing their story of what it was like when they got called to be a bishop and just how similar the experiences are so that you know that you're not alone,” said Bishop Vetter.
Vetter has actually been a bishop for four years, but due to covid restrictions and scheduling this was his first time at the Bishop’s School.
The week was mostly filed with classroom time, learning how the Vatican operates. It concluded with an unforgettable experience.
“On Saturday, our last day, we celebrated mass at Saint Peter's and then proceeded down to the Tomb of Saint Peter, and did a little reverence there,” said Bishop Fleming. “And then we had a two-hour meeting with Pope Francis.”
Both Bishops were struck by how attentive Pope Francis was.
“Bishop Fleming was right behind me when I met him and I told him I'm from the Diocese of Helena in Montana,” said Bishop Veter. “Bishop Fleming went up and said he’s from Great Falls-Billings, Montana, and he goes, “Ah, Montana, another Montanan, two from Montana!”
“So he was listening very closely to what we were saying,” said Bishop Fleming. “It was it was really kind of an amazing time. As people asked questions, he jotted notes down and then just talked for about 20 minutes answering each question. So he was very engaged, very engaging as well.”
Both men admitted the language barrier was a challenge since the Pope spoke mostly in Italian. But he left them with a strong message.
“What touched me deeply is when he looked at us and he said, “You're my brother, each of you are my brother,” said Bishop Vetter.
For Bishop Fleming, this marked his first time in Rome, and he says he left with a reminder of just how big and broad the church is.
“So often I think we can kind of just look at our parish or even our dioceses here in Montana. But to see the universal church and that really was what I took away, is a change of perspective,” said Bishop Fleming.
Pope Francis praised the bishops for their leadership during difficult times for the church.
“Every little decision has three different sides, it seems,” said Bishop Fleming. “So we did talk a little bit about that and some issues about liturgy and how liturgy shouldn't divide. But often we see that, liturgy wars, you could call it.”
“I came back, just really encouraged, supported,” said Bishop Vetter. “Maybe that's a better word, really supported by not only by the pope, but by all those whose offices over there.
Both Bishops were also able to meet up with seminarians from their respective dioceses. Even being half a world away, they appreciated the chance to catch up and learn with each other.
“Even though we're only an hour, 15 minutes apart between Great Falls and Helena, still you don't see each other as often as you would hope,” said Bishop Vetter.