Share treasure of faith by inviting others to table of Lord

NOTE: The following letter was published in the March 23, 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!

My recent pastoral letter included this encouragement: “Imagine if every person just affected one other person to consider Jesus again in their lives. Now is a time for holy boldness.” 

As we continue on our Lenten journey, I encourage you to think of people in need of an invitation to return to weekly Mass or to become a Catholic, then invite them. These can be members of our own family, co-workers, and classmates at school or people in our neighborhood. We are never too young or too old to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, we have a great treasure to share. The fruit of such a way of living was evident on the first Sunday of Lent as we celebrated the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at our Cathedral. As members of each parish in our diocese announced the names of their catechumens -- this year a record number, 124 -- I felt like I was traveling around to all of your parishes again. We will be welcoming these catechumens into full membership in the Church during the upcoming Easter Vigil.

What a joy to encourage them in their spiritual journeys and greet them after they signed the Book of the Elect, as well as the even greater number of candidates who are seeking continuing conversion to the Catholic faith.

A heartfelt thank you to all involved with our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults programs for being good evangelizers and awakening the call of the Lord in the lives of our catechumens and candidates! Let us all pray that the new members of our Church will bring great enthusiasm to their parishes and help to renew us by their own witness and participation. 

The Second Sunday of Lent, I was again filled with gratitude. Our “in pew” pledge weekend for the Bishop’s Annual Appeal took place. As you already know, this year’s campaign saw some changes and I thank all of you who have already responded generously. The funding from the Appeal will provide for so many vital pastoral ministries in our diocese which we could not do without your financial support; amongst others, the funding of the 20 priests who minister as hospital chaplains, funding for the seminary training of our 15 seminarians and $1.7 million dollars for Catholic Charities ministries.

Through your generous donations to the Appeal, you have touched many people’s lives and have clearly put your faith into action, and for this I am most grateful. All of the money donated will go directly to support the ministries listed in the Appeal brochure.

We will be issuing updates on the campaign's progress and a full report on the Appeal after it is concluded. In the meantime, I encourage all who have not yet supported the Appeal to consider contributing and help us continue to carry out Christ’s work in our local Church. It would be wonderful if everyone helped with a gift of some amount and joined in this great ministerial moment.   

As part of being good stewards with your donations, we have started making some changes at the St. John Neumann Pastoral Center in Piscataway. As you may be aware, this center houses our diocesan curia who are the people who assist me in shepherding our diocese. Their work includes both guiding our pastoral action and seeing to the good and efficient temporal administration of the diocese, our parishes and institutions.

The Pastoral Center also houses our tribunal and the offices which oversee the formation of our lay ministers, seminarians, deacons and priests. As your diocesan bishop I have the responsibility and privilege to see that all the affairs which belong to the good and efficient administration of the diocese are well coordinated and ordered to appropriately serve our local Church. Everything we do in this work has to have as its goal the further conversion of our hearts, the deepening of our friendship with Christ and evangelization. 

In a sense, our Pastoral Center is to be the companion of our Cathedral of St. Francis, which truly is the center of our unity as a diocesan Church. The Cathedral and our diocesan center are to be our visible link to the apostolic tradition and our life of communion.

The Pastoral Center cannot simply become the “headquarters” of the diocese that is supported by the parishes, but rather has to be a place teeming with life, a place of prayer, planning, supporting and helping to inspire our parish communities and all who minister in our diocese. To assist us in this, we now have daily Mass in our Chapel and with the Blessed Sacrament reserved there, it is a welcoming place for holy respite with our Beloved for employees and visitors alike. I find that going there every day for a visit helps to focus me as I begin my office work.  

As you might be aware, our Pastoral Center building is quite spacious, so while we are evaluating our work in the light of our mission, we have begun to consolidate our diocesan offices moving all of them to the first floor.

Later this spring, the second floor will be rented by Saint Peter’s University Hospital, which we sponsor. In the space, they plan to house some of their administrative offices. By renting out half of the building, we are working to eliminate the budget deficit we have experienced in recent years. Please know that we are certainly striving to be good stewards of our diocesan resources which you have entrusted to us. 

Indeed, the Lord is blessing us in many ways this Lent, much of it through your good efforts at living our faith, witnessing to others and gently inviting them to share in our way of life. 

He is blessing us through your generosity, which makes the charitable and pastoral works of the diocese possible. 

As we continue our Lenten pilgrimage with the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, may the Lord abundantly bless you and your loved ones with His gift of peace.

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