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