Bishop to graduates: 'Remain close to Jesus'

NOTE: The following letter was published in the June 15, 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 dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

While I was in Rome recently for some activities at the Pontifical North American College where I had served as Rector before coming to be your Bishop, I had the blessing of a few words with Pope Francis. It is always so encouraging to see him and receive his blessing. In a previous visit to Rome, the Holy Father had asked me about our Diocese and particularly about our priests. This visit, the first thing he asked me about was our youth. I think the youth are particularly in his heart and on his mind as he prepares for a Synod of Bishops next year on the youth of the world. I told Pope Francis that gratefully our Diocese is blessed with some of the best youth in our country. He responded, “good,” and then asked me to deliver a message to you. “Tell them not to be afraid to give themselves to Jesus, to give themselves generously to Jesus because they have nothing to lose. Jesus only wants to help and guide and assist, to accompany them, He will not take anything from them, but rather only wants to assist them.” 

Since returning from Rome, I have been sharing Pope Francis’ message with the youth of our Diocese and did so with the graduates of our four high schools, Bishop Ahr in Edison, Immaculata in Somerville, Mount Saint Mary in Watchung, and Saint Joseph in Metuchen. Thanks be to God, we are blessed with four wonderful high schools in the Diocese where our youth are formed not only in intellectual and human formation, but are nourished in the faith and built up with good values and in virtue, too. We are indebted to all the teachers, administrators, pastors and benefactors who keep our schools open. In sharing the Pope's message, I tried to emphasize to our young people how true the Pope’s message is. The Lord, who knits us together in our mother’s womb, knows what we need to be happy in life, so the more you can stay in touch with Him and carry Him with you on your journey over the years ahead, the more you do to keep close to Our Lord, and figure out what His plan is for you, the happier you will be in life and able to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

As I handed diplomas to our graduates at their commencement exercise, listened to valedictorian speeches and prayed for and with our young people, I felt they were prepared for the next chapter in their lives. During the past four years, they have been able to take a wide range of courses, including religion classes, AP classes, STEM courses, drama, art and even financial literacy that prepared them academically for the rigors of college courses.  

More importantly, I know our graduates have taken advantage of countless opportunities to develop and nurture their faith lives, deepening their friendship with Christ. In order to assist in this development, at both of our diocesan high schools we will now have full-time diocesan priests on staff to be available to the students, fully participating in the life of the school community. All four high schools have priests who assist with this, and each of our high schools have campus ministry programs staffed with religious sisters and lay staff offering our students so many avenues for service to others — working from Appalachia to Guatemala and all over New Jersey.

Our high schools truly bring to life the words Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was referring to when he said, “A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school should help all its students to become saints.”

Our Catholic schools are another available and valuable avenue of helping our youth attain the goal of sainthood for which we all strive!

In the supplement of this edition of The Catholic Spirit, you can read about each of our graduations, their valedictorian’s speech, the awards given, and scholarships received. Amazingly, more than $92.5 million dollars in scholarships for colleges were awarded to our graduates! The articles in this supplement will give you a sense of why we are so proud of our graduates and hopeful that they will continue to be disciples of Jesus who will build up His Church.

As exciting as the future looks for not only our graduates but all graduates, and as prepared as they are for the future, we cannot forget that challenges lie ahead for them. Sometimes with transitions – whether to college or the work force - we can easily become forgetful or distracted, and then some fears can creep into our lives. For a while, some of our graduates, even though they have been given a firm foundation in their faith, might even try to live without God, or think they are, but we know we all need Him. Reiterating the words of Pope Francis to all our youth, I urge all our graduates to stay close to Jesus. As they sort through all types of new situations and relationships, Jesus is a known and welcome voice which will lead them in the right direction.

The graduates, and indeed, all of us, must remind ourselves at times, we are never alone as we go into the unknowns of life. To help remind us of Jesus’ presence and love, I encourage our graduates, and indeed, all of us, to keep some religious object with us, the rosary would be wonderful, or to wear a religious cross or other object that will help us to live every day trusting in God’s ever present love for us. It is a good practice for us all. Physical reminders can help raise our minds to God, reminding us of His presence and love. They assist us in our prayer and remind us to turn to Him often. Prayer is the only avenue to deepening our friendship with Jesus.

So, as we congratulate and celebrate our graduates at this time of year, let us remember they need, now more than ever before, our prayerful support. It is a good time, too, for all of us to remember God’s desire to be with us, all the time, but especially when we are in transition and face new challenges in our lives. As Pope Francis has said to our youth, “God wants the best for us and remains close to us.” What a blessing for us all!

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