Catholic Schools Week is time to thank God for ministry

NOTE: The following letter was published in the January 26, 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!

We are so blessed as Catholics to have, as a part of our culture, many annual celebrations: memorials, feast days, solemnities and other opportunities to celebrate the beauty of our faith and the wisdom of the Church. I have found great joy and encouragement in sharing these experiences with you since my arrival. Together we also have many opportunities to praise, to give thanks and to remember all of the many ministries that are so vital to the people of God.

One wonderful annual celebration that is upon us again, is Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 29–Feb. 4. This is a week where we can thank God for this important ministry in our diocese, and take stock of how we can even improve upon something that is already good and worthy. Catholic schools have played such an important part in my life and the lives of so many others that it is good to have the opportunity to reflect on the impact our schools have had and continue to have today.

The Church has constantly encouraged us to promote and support our Catholic schools. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has referred to Catholic schools as “an outstanding apostolate of hope.” Indeed, there is much to be hopeful about.

Faith Formation
In my own life, Catholic schools have played a critical role in strengthening all the lessons I learned in my home about faith, community and service. One visible way that I expressed my gratitude for my Catholic education was to have both my elementary school principal, Mercy Sister Marjorie Smith, and my high school vice principal (now principal), Religious Teachers Filippini Sister Marianne McCann, as participants in my ordination Mass as Bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen last May. They and the schools they represented were in a unique partnership with my family and deeply entwined in my formation.

Since becoming bishop, I have had the opportunity to return to both schools to visit the students and teachers and to celebrate Mass. It is always a joy to visit, and to thank God for the many people who made that possible for me: my parents, teachers, administrators, staff and generous benefactors who all sacrificed to make it possible for me to be formed at these institutions. 

It has been a great joy to have already visited on many occasions all of our high schools for various occasions and many of the elementary schools. While visiting, I am reminded of the words of St. John Paul II when he visited our country, “for over 200 years now the Church in the United States has been instrumental in educating successive generations of Catholics, and in teaching the truth of the faith, promoting respect for the human person, and developing the moral character of their students. Their academic excellence and success in preparing young people for life have served the whole of American society.” This can be seen by the outstanding colleges and universities our graduates attend, the positions Catholic school graduates hold in both business and public service, in their continued service to our Church, and the dedication they bring to creating faith-filled families.

For more than 200 years, Catholic schools have been educating children in the United States. There are many stories to be told about the incredible work done by the religious communities of sisters that educated legions of children, forming a school system that grew to five million students. Today, more than 6,000 Catholic schools across the country still fulfill the mission expressed in the document “To Teach as Jesus Did”, written by the Bishops of the United States in 1972, “The educational mission of the Church is an integrated ministry embracing three interlocking dimensions: the message revealed by God which the Church proclaims; fellowship in the life of the Holy Spirit; service to the Christian community and the entire human community.”

Beacons of Light
When you visit anyone of our schools, you will see this mission being lived out in so many ways. First and foremost, you will note the Catholic identity of the schools and the expression of the Gospel message in all that occurs.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us, “every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet Him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of our Lord’s disciples, the Church.”

So many share with me that our schools are truly communities of faith and service. I have been so proud of our students as I learn about the many acts of service being performed in each of our schools. All four high schools have active campus ministry programs that consistently reach out to those in need, and we were able to assign priests to our high schools this past spring to minister and teach our youth, too.

If you are not familiar with the impact our schools are having on our youth, I hope you will visit the school websites to learn how our young people are growing in their love for the Lord and his Church and taking the Gospel message out into the world.

Equally edifying is the service being done in the elementary schools. Students are involved in food drives, coat drives, raising money for the Missionary Childhood Associate, collaborating with Catholic Charities and sponsoring students’ education in Guatemala among many other activities. We pray that this way of living becomes part of their lives.

Catholic Schools Week gives us all the opportunity to thank all of those who contribute to the success of our schools.

As the primary educators of your children, let me thank the parents for putting your faith and trust in our schools and allowing us to partner with you in the education of your child. It is in a Catholic school that the faith you are teaching at home will be reinforced, forming and ultimately transforming your child as a disciple of Jesus Christ. They will carry this with them throughout their lives. 

We are also indebted to pastors, principals, faculties, staff and benefactors in each and every school for the work they do and the generosity of spirit exhibited in their teaching vocations. Through your generosity to our Bishops Annual Appeal, professional development is provided for teachers and support for programming also occurs. 

Pope Francis has stated, “The education of children and young people is such an important task in forming them as free and responsible human beings. It affirms their dignity as an inalienable gift that flows from our original creation as children made in the image and likeness of God. And because education truly forms human beings, it is especially the duty and responsibility of the Church, who is called to serve mankind from the heart of God and in such a way that no other institution can.” 

If you have a child in Catholic school, I hope you enjoy all of the Catholic Schools Week celebrations that will be occurring in your school. For those families that do not have children in one of our schools, I encourage you to consider it; it is worth the sacrifice and we have tuition assistance programs for those in financial need.

Please call one of the schools, or the Diocesan Office of Schools at (732) 562-2446 to learn more about the schools in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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