Bishop shares joy he experienced in Rome, Africa

NOTE: The following letter was published in the October 19, 2017 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

As I write this message to you, on my heart and in my prayers, as I am sure it is on yours, are the tragic events which transpired in Charlottesville, Va., where racism has reared its sinful and ugly head and in Barcelona, where ISIS claimed responsibility for the terrorist act which took almost 20 lives and injured more than 100. There is much good that goes on each day in our diocese, country and throughout the world, but evil certainly gets our attention, and rightly so. It reminds us to further convert our hearts to be more like our Lord's, and to work and pray for the conversion of the hearts of others too.
Now let me share with you some of the good work going on in our Diocese and written about in this edition of The Catholic Spirit. Even though it is summer, and that usually means things slow down some, it does not seem to be the case for our diocese! The mission of the Church continues all the time, and you will see beautiful aspects of that mission in the pages that follow. There are stories on the Mass and Symposium on persecuted Christians in the Middle East, the diocesan multicultural Mass, a discernment day for men considering the priesthood, as well as the candidacy for one of our seminarians.
Although the diocese has kept a hectic pace of life during the last few months, hopefully the summer has provided each of us with a chance for a break, a chance to disengage from our regular routine and to visit with family and friends we might not get to regularly see. In addition to providing us an opportunity to rest, disengaging from our regular routine also allows us a chance to reconnect with our hopes and desires for our lives and loved ones. Vacations remind us to be thankful to God for our blessings and even just for the gift of life itself! Indeed, I remember as a child, my family never failed to attend Mass and pray while on vacation. We would not go somewhere that Sunday Mass was not available. It was a valuable lesson for us children that we never take a vacation from God or prayer! Of course, now as a priest and bishop, it is much easier for me to make sure that happens!
I hope you will all take time this week to reflect on our patronal Feast Day, the Queenship of Mary, which is celebrated on August 22. Of course, we often recall the Queenship of Mary as each time we pray the glorious mysteries of the rosary, the fifth decade has us meditate on the Coronation of Mary as the Queen of Heaven and Earth. Our prayer reveals to us how revered Mary is in heaven. As we celebrate this glorious feast day of hers, join me in consecrating ourselves anew to her and thanking her for being our powerful diocesan patroness who intercedes for us. Indeed, the 90 parishes of our diocese and the 650,000 Catholics we serve, all have much to be grateful for, even as we dare to beg for more, asking our generous Father's continued blessing and protection on all of us and our families. Every day our priests, deacons, religious and laity work wholeheartedly to make over our hearts to be more like the merciful heart of our Good Shepherd's. In this time of new evangelization, Mary our Queen is a powerful intercessor in the court of the King. Indeed Mary our Queen will keep us focused on the mission of her Son; proclaiming the Kingdom, teaching the Word and bringing the sacraments to nourish and strengthen our portion of God's Kingdom here in central New Jersey. 
When I pray to Mary our Queen, you can be assured that she will know how grateful I am for each of you and all you do to prayerfully support the blessed work of our diocese. Each of us has a contribution to make. I ask you to keep in your hearts and prayer the work of evangelization, as it is certainly a pressing need today. Sharing the joy of the Gospel with others who have not encountered it, or may have forgotten it due to the stresses of daily life or the confusion that at times seems to abound in our world. I hope you recall that in my Pastoral Letter, I spoke about creating a culture of encounter with Jesus Christ.
The dark cloud of racism and terrorism that plague our world will only be pierced by the bright light that flows from people with transformed lives of faith, committed to advancing the peaceful Kingdom of God through word and deed. May we be those people to usher in brighter days for our nation as we live faithful discipleship to the Lord Jesus.
As we honor Mary, Our Queen, the Patroness of our diocese, I ask you to make a commitment to help others encounter Jesus this week through sharing Christ enthusiastically with your encouraging words and by your example, so that others may know better the joy of the Gospel. Why not invite someone who has been away from Church to come with you to Mass next weekend; it never does harm to ask. That would be a wonderful way to thank Our Queen and show our gratitude to God for His blessings.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

"The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus," so Pope Francis began his Encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel. I have been blessed with a good dose of that joy over the past couple weeks.

Recently, I had an experience that was so joyful and uplifting that I want to share it with you. I was invited to Rome to preside at the diaconate ordination for the seminarians of the Pontifical North American College (PNAC) on Sept. 28. It was a beautiful, joy-filled liturgy during which I was privileged to ordain thirty-one seminarians, who joined seven of their classmates ordained to the diaconate over the summer months in their home dioceses.

The ordination Mass was at St. Peter's Basilica at the Altar of the Chair right below the beautiful window of the Holy Spirit behind the main altar. It was a beautiful moment of praise to God. It was also the exact location where I had been ordained a deacon 25 years ago this year, so it was a moving and memorable moment for me personally.

While serving as rector in Rome, I had welcomed these new deacons to the Pontifical North American College as seminarians. Having assisted in their formation to the priesthood, for almost two years, I knew them well. Their joyfulness, enthusiasm, dedication to prayer and their deep desire to serve had been evident to me, and certainly prepared them well to be configured to Christ the Servant through ordination. It is a privilege I had never anticipated.

Adding to my joy was the presence at the Mass of Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, who was rector of PNAC when I was a seminarian there. We were joined by Cardinal James Harvey, who works in Rome, a dozen Bishops from the United States, and hundreds of priests and deacons, as well as by almost 2,000 lay faithful, family and friends of those to be ordained.

The desire in the hearts of the seminarians who became servants after the image of Christ Himself, was inspiring to all of us gathered. I have no doubt that these men will serve well in Christ's name, throughout the United States.

Of course, on my mind and in my heart throughout the Mass were our own diocesan seminarians and deacons, both our transitional and permanent deacons. We are abundantly blessed here in Metuchen!  Tim Eck, one of our seminarians from St. Jude’s in Blairstown whom our diocese sent to continue his priestly formation at the College this year, sang in the choir. It was good to have a chance to visit with him and enjoy a good Roman meal out. Father John Rozembajgier, administrator of St. Ann’s in Raritan, was also present, as he had served some of the men ordained while he was on the faculty at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. Yes, the Joy of the Gospel filled our hearts and lives as we encountered Jesus in St. Peter's Basilica that day!

After the ordination in Rome, I went to visit a priest friend, a classmate from seminary in Rome, who now serves in South Africa. My only visit to the continent of Africa was to Egypt, so this was a new experience for me. In Pretoria and the surrounding area, I encountered a wonderful, joyful community of faith.

Joining my friend and I were two of our classmates from Rome. We had all visited Egypt together while all ministering in Rome, so this was our African reunion.

One Sunday morning, we went to a township outside of Pretoria, to visit Christ the King Parish in Mabopane for Mass, which included the baptism of 17 children. After an early morning departure and drive, we arrived at the township and were met at its border by a large group of parishioners and priests. We greeted all the men, then were led by a group of women in a spirited procession with music and dancing to the parish church. There we were warmly welcomed by hundreds of parishioners then brought into a hall for breakfast.

After some time, we vested for Mass and proceeded to the church. The joy was palpable. The music was beautiful and moving, and nobody was glancing at their watches to check on how long Mass was taking, except me who was unaccustomed to three-hour long Sunday Masses!

To see the devotion and dedication of the people was certainly moving and reminded me of the Mass I was privileged to celebrate with our African community at St. Matthew's in Edison some months ago. The personal commitment of these people to Jesus Christ and their trust and faith in Him was inspiring to me and reinforced in me my own desire to give my life over more completely to Christ and to serve Him through His people. It was clear to me that the joy of the Gospel filled the hearts and lives of these good people who had encountered Jesus anew in our celebration.

Let us all join with the Holy Father, Pope Francis, praying that the joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus!  

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