This priest believed the church should engage with the people

Fr. Joe Vetter
Fr. Joe Vetter

The Rev. Joe Vetter, a Roman Catholic priest whose funeral was Tuesday, lived a multi-dimensioned and fruitful life that a standard resume or obituary cannot fully describe. Since his death a week ago, friends and colleagues have assessed and reminisced. “A great man,’’ said a mutual friend. A minister of “out-sized impact,’’ said a fellow priest.

Vetter’s 44 years of active priesthood spanned the modern period of robust growth for the Catholic Church in North Carolina, his native state. He believed not in a hunkered-down church, but rather an outward-facing church that connects to and engages with the society around it.

I first met Joe — he was “Joe’’ to all who knew him — shortly after I returned to Raleigh after two years as The News and Observer’s Washington correspondent in the late 1970s. Then the editor and associate publisher of the North Carolina Catholic newspaper, he called to ask me to serve on the advisory board of the weekly, statewide publication, published jointly by the dioceses of Raleigh and Charlotte.

Vetter steered the newspaper clear of serving as a promotional house-organ. He treated readers as intelligent adult Christians who may not always agree with each other, but who deserved reporting and commentary that addresses issues and challenges.

As the Raleigh diocese’s communications director and subsequently chancellor, he forged a long friendship and collaboration with Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting Company. For WRAL’s Project Tanzania in the mid 1980s, Vetter reached out to enlist the involvement of Catholic Relief Services, an international agency. In 1987, when Pope John Paul II made his nine-city visit to the United States, WRAL served as the national TV video hub – another outgrowth of the Goodmon-Vetter relationship.

In addition to his years striving to modernize church administration, Vetter served as pastor of several parishes. He was not a thumping orator; rather he preached as he wrote: in pithy sentences, without pretense but with credibility and authenticity. During his five years in Southport, his parishioners included former Gov. Mike Easley and his wife Mary, who were touched when he once appeared on election night to greet them as their pastor.

When we moved into a new house in North Hills, Vetter dropped in one afternoon. At some point in the conversation, my wife Kat recalled that priests used to bless houses. No problem for Joe, who said a prayer over water poured into a bowl and then went about sprinkling the walls – impromptu, the house was fully and touchingly blessed.

He reached out to the poor through his long involvement with Catholic Charities, and he reached across denominational lines through the N.C. Council of Churches. It pained him when the diocese ended its affiliation with the council.

Vetter especially felt energized by his decade of service as the pastor of the Duke Catholic Center. In 2008, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy underwent brain surgery at Duke University Hospital. When the family asked for a priest, Joe responded in the Christian spirit of visiting the sick. Kennedy relatives were so moved by his deft ministry to the senator that they invited him to a weekend at their compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Joe accepted.

Joe met people wherever they were in life’s journey, and gently helped them find a path to higher ground. He counseled couples toward happy marriages, and guided college students toward mature adulthood. His last pastor assignment was at St. Therese Parish in Wrightsville Beach. When he retired last year, the Wilmington Star-News asked for his favorite Biblical passage. Joe cited the ending of the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis, which he interpreted this way:

“Don’t look back. People have regrets and have made mistakes, but they should not define themselves by their mistakes.”

Among our email exchanges during his late-life maladies, I recall his insightful response to an essay in The Guardian on “disappearing Christianity.” The decline in religious adherence, Joe worried, reflected today’s “culture of individualism.” And he observed, “Religion has become more an institution or set of ideas rather than a way of life.”

For Joe Vetter, devotion to the people of God and to elevating the relevance of his church to his state was his “way of life.”

Ferrel Guillory teaches journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill.