Bishop inspired by faithful after first year as shepherd of diocese

NOTE: The following letter was published in the May 18, 2017 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

At Christmas one of the most faith-filled scenes that can be found in homes, churches, and communities throughout the world is the Nativity, a reminder that Christmas should be centered on the birth of Christ and Christ should be the center of our lives.
  It was St. Francis of Assisi, for whom our cathedral is named, who is credited with having created the first Nativity scene. He had a deep devotion to the Infant Jesus and on Christmas eve 1223 re-created the first live Nativity scene in a cave outside the town of Greccio, Italy. 
What St. Francis wanted to do was to help people see with their bodily eyes what Jesus' original coming was like. He wanted people to realize that the Babe of Bethlehem, the name he called the Infant Jesus, was born in poverty, humility and simplicity. So, with the help of a friend and landowner, Giovanni Velita, St. Francis constructed a manger, filled it with hay, and brought in an ox and donkey from a local farm. Then, he and his Franciscan brothers invited all the townspeople to come to the manger on Christmas eve. That night, they lit candles, sang songs and then had Mass at the manger he had built - and St. Francis, since he was a deacon, sang the Gospel of Christ's birth, and he preached about the birth of the poor king, born in Bethlehem, in a manger, like the one they were standing in.  Contrary to our custom and popular belief, St. Francis used no statues of Jesus or Mary or the baby Jesus - nor did he recruit live actors to play those parts; he used no shepherds or angels or wise men, nor kings.  
St. Francis' friend, Thomas of Celana, wrote in his journal that Christmas eve before going to bed, "Greccio was transformed into a second Bethlehem, and that night, wonderful night, seemed like the fullest day to both man and beast for the joy they felt at the renewing of the mystery...."  Having lived in Rome for almost 20 years, Greccio was a place I enjoyed visiting, and it gratefully maintains that spiritual atmosphere to this day. 
Today, 800 years later, the Nativity lives on not only in Grecco but around the world, and it often can be the one thing which touches our hearts most at Christmas. At live Nativity plays and scenes, not only children but adults can be awestruck as they are transported back to the see and feel, the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem. In Catholic schools and churches children's Christmas pageants, with their simplicity and innocence, can bring people to tears as it reminds them of the true meaning of Christmas.
In homes everywhere families carry out the tradition of setting up their Nativity with the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, shepherds, ox and donkey. In Rome, on the third Sunday of Advent, there is a beautiful tradition that the children of Rome bring the "bambinelli" (baby Jesus from their Nativity scenes) to St. Peter's Square for the Holy Father to bless them.  It is a sea of bambinelli, and a beautiful sight.  The Roman children then place the Infant Jesus in the manager in their homes on Christmas eve. 
Yes, I'm sure we all have our memories of how the Nativity has had an impact on our life. I have my memories of Greccio and the third Sunday of Advent blessings by the Holy Father, and another one which occurred when I arrived in Rome as a seminarian. One of the first things we did was to go out to visit the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla on the Via Salaria. In there is a fresco from the 200's. It is of the Blessed Mother with the infant Jesus resting His head on her. There is a man standing next to her and he is pointing upward to a star which for the Jewish people is a symbol for the Messiah. The fresco is the earliest representation that we have of the Blessed Mother. It also tells the story of the mystery of the incarnation, of Mary becoming the mother of our Savior, and the fulfillment of the Divine promise for a Messiah.
I remember being struck that the fresco was the oldest image of Our Lady. I thought, too, about the people in the third century who were here in this catacomb painting this picture to commemorate our faith. I remember thinking how blessed we are to celebrate Christmas in freedom, even though in many places throughout the world Christians are not allowed to do so. Indeed, many refugees today are from places where they are persecuted for being Christians. 
Pope Francis talked about the symbolism of the Nativity scene just last Friday when he thanked the donors of this year's Vatican Christmas tree which was lit and Nativity scene unveiled on Dec. 9, in St. Peter's Square. He said that the Nativity scene "set up in churches, in homes and in so many public places are an invitation to make room in our life and in society for God, hidden in the face of many persons who are in conditions of hardship, of poverty and of tribulation."
The Holy Father added, "the crib and the tree are a message of hope and of love, and they help to create a favorable Christmas atmosphere to live with faith the mystery of the Birth of the Redeemer, who came on earth with simplicity and meekness." He said we should be attracted to the Nativity scene "with the spirit of children, because there we understand God's goodness and contemplate His mercy."
This Christmas will certainly be another memorable one for me. I am told there is a most beautiful Nativity in our Cathedral and I look forward to praying before the Babe of Bethlehem in our little town of Metuchen, and will be remembering all of you on my first Christmas with you.
It is my prayer that the Christ Child will be the center of your Christmas and life, that each Nativity scene you see will give you a sense of wonder and awe, and remind you that Christ should be the center of your life not only at Christmas but all year long. A Blessed Christmas to you all!

When Pope Francis met with the Bishops of our country during his visit to the United States, he shared these words: “A pastor keeps watch first and foremost with prayer, supporting the faith of his people and instilling confidence in the Lord, in His presence. A pastor remains vigilant by helping people to lift their gaze at times of discouragement, frustration and failure. We might well ask whether in our pastoral ministry we are ready to ‘waste’ time with families. Whether we are ready to be present to them, sharing their difficulties and joys.”

As I finish a year with you, this encouragement by the Holy Father is certainly in my heart and on my mind. I have striven to deepen my own friendship with Christ throughout this year, so that I may be a support in your faith. At the same time, I can tell you that I have been so encouraged in my own faith life by what I have found since coming to Metuchen as your shepherd. Your dedication to the Lord, expressed through your commitment and love for your parishes, your priests, deacons and religious, your encouragement of vocations, your fidelity to your own families and loved ones, have all inspired me to give more fully of myself to what the Lord has called me. I have recommitted myself to deepening my friendship with the Lord and to being as present as possible to our diocesan families, our priests, deacons, religious and laity, as present as possible to 650,000 people!

As I mentioned in my first introduction with you on March 8 at the press conference held at our pastoral center, St. Augustine once defined the office of bishop, as an “Office of Love,” as it is the Bishop who is to give certainty that the pastoral charity of Jesus Christ is never lacking in a local Church. Touched by a bit of holy fear, I am certainly humbled to lead this wonderful Diocese and I will continue to strive to fulfill the demanding task of ensuring that the pastoral charity of Jesus Christ continues to be abundant here in Metuchen. 

I hope it is apparent, but let me clearly state that I love being a priest, and I am so grateful to God for His love and for His calling me to be with Him and follow Him in the priesthood. I am also grateful to God for the grace He has given me over these nearly 25 years which has sustained me in being faithful to my priestly promises, and has been my sustenance for my ministry with you as your shepherd.

Thank you for your wonderful cooperation, support and prayers throughout this year. I pray that, God willing, my next 24 years with you will be as blessed as this first one. Let us be reconciled to God! God continues to work on reconciling the world to Himself, and that is why He sent his Son. The Son has made us His ambassadors for reconciling the world to the Father, forgiving our sins and reconciling us to God so that we, in turn, may be ambassadors for reconciliation. May our Blessed Mother, our patroness under the title of the Queenship of Mary, always accompany us in our task at hand! God bless you all!

The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen