St. Lawrence reminds us of real treasures of Church

NOTE: The following letter was published in the November 30, 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, 

On Nov. 19, the Diocese of Metuchen observed the first World Day of the Poor established by Pope Francis. In solidarity with the poor, hundreds of the faithful joined me for a prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi. In preparing my homily for the service, I was full of gratitude for the many ways the people and organizations in our diocese are helping the poor each and every day. So that you, too, can be inspired by their deeds, I decided to share my homily with you.

Perhaps you may already know the story of Saint Lawrence. He lived during the reign of the Emperor Valerian who persecuted Christians. On Aug. 6 in the year 257, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Sixtus II, was arrested as he and five of his deacons were leaving the catacombs of St. Callistus after having celebrated Mass at the tombs of the Martyrs. The pope and four of his deacons were executed immediately and buried in the same cemetery they had just visited. The fifth deacon, however, was not executed with the rest. He was known to be an educated man with great administrative skills. His name was Lawrence. At that time in the early Church, deacons were the ones primarily responsible for the administration of Church goods and ministries. Deacons were very powerful. 

Lawrence was in charge of all the finances for the Church of Rome. The Romans knew it and when they caught Lawrence, they thought they would cash in. So, Lawrence was brought before the Emperor Valerian who demanded that the Deacon turn over the treasures of the Church. Valerian had heard stories of how the Christians had gold vessels, wealth, precious garments, large collections of books, and so forth. Lawrence asked for three days to gather the treasures of the Church and he was granted the reprieve. On the third day, he came back to the Emperor and with him he brought servant beggars, some lame and blind people as well. He said to the Emperor: “These are the treasures of the Church because it is in serving them that we meet our God.” The Emperor thought Lawrence was mocking him and was enraged. He ordered Lawrence to be tortured to death by being grilled alive. Lawrence went to his martyrdom with peace and calm. The story of his execution left a tremendous impression on the people of Rome. Some even said that while he was being grilled to death, Lawrence stated, “You can turn me over now, I’m done on this side.” For that perseverance and wit, the Church proclaimed Lawrence to be the Patron saint of cooks! We do have a sense of humor – strange at times, but it is there!

People never forgot the witness of Lawrence. He reminded us for all time what are the real treasures of the Church: not gold vessels and fine vestments; not bank accounts or palaces; not pieces of art or any thing. The real treasure of the Church is the holy life of a faithful Christian who loves God and neighbor. It is that simple……and it is that difficult!

It is easy for us to get distracted or caught up in the “things” of ministry. St. Lawrence is revered because he understood that the love of God which he ministered on the altar meant little if it did not also minister love of neighbor to those he met on the streets – especially the poor. 

Pope Francis established this first World Day of the Poor as a reminder of this to us. The theme he chose, is “Let us love not with words, but in deeds.” Among other things, the Holy Father said;

  • “This day is meant, above all, to encourage believers to react against a culture of discard and waste, and to embrace the culture of encounter” (no. 6). 
  • “This Sunday, if there are poor people where we live who seek protection and assistance, let us draw close to them: it will be a favorable moment to encounter the God we seek. Following the teaching of Scripture (cf. Gen 18:3-5; Heb 13:2), let us welcome them as honored guests at our table; they can be teachers who help us live the faith more consistently” (no. 7). 
  • And, “If we truly wish to encounter Christ, we have to touch his body in the suffering bodies of the poor, as a response to the sacramental communion bestowed in the Eucharist. The Body of Christ, broken in the sacred liturgy, can be seen, through charity and sharing, in the faces and persons of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters” (no. 3).

So grateful we are to God, that so many in this diocese clearly understand this need, and see Christ in the poor they serve: 

The Deacons’ Table, funded and staffed by the permanent deacons of this diocese serves approximately 75 guests each week with a delicious dinner and hearty portion of fellowship.

In food pantries across the diocese, volunteers serve hundreds of families each month.  

The Diocese of Metuchen Catholic Charities Solidarity Team works to reduce injustice and suffering facing the poor and the vulnerable around the world and here in our diocese. The solidarity team works in close relationship with Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Pregnancy Help Centers across the diocese work to help women facing unplanned pregnancies to choose life. Volunteers work to provide emotional, spiritual and material support for women and families in need.

The Center for Great Expectations serves pregnant or parenting homeless women and their children to overcome, and break, the destructive generational cycle of trauma, abuse, homelessness and addiction.

Our own Saint Peters’ University Hospital serves the healthcare needs of the poor, especially with its new opioid addiction program.

St. Vincent de Paul Societies and parish and school social concern groups -- all volunteer organizations -- are dedicated to helping individuals and families in the local community through works of kindness and generosity such as holiday toy giveaways, financial assistance, winter coat distribution and much more. 

Our own Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Metuchen houses, feeds and serves the poor in so many valuable initiatives thanks to abundant generosity of our faithful. 

Our prison ministries address the spiritual needs of those who are incarcerated.

Our Catholic Schools work hard to raise children out of poverty through education; the surest route out of poverty for our young.

But, of course, there are many other ways this service is done, but we have to admit, that there is always more that can be done….so brothers and sisters in Christ, know of my love and gratitude for all that you do, to help us love God by loving our neighbor. It is easy for us to get distracted and to lose sight of what the real treasures of the Church are – so remember the instruction of St. Lawrence. What he said to the Emperor sometimes needs to be said to us. The real treasure of the Church is the person next to you, and the person in the mirror too.

God bless you and thank you all! I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Let us continue to remember our blessings during this time of year and share with others in need.

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