Faithful encouraged to continue to support immigrants

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NOTE: The following letter was published in the January 12, 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!

Happy, healthy and holy New Year to you all. As I celebrated my first Christmas and New Year's in Central New Jersey, I was particularly mindful of all those who were in similar situations as newcomers here. Every New Year contains the possibility of great promise, and this year is no exception, even amidst any uncertainties we face in our lives, families, Church or nation. I hope your Christmas and New Year celebrations were uplifting and joyous for all. Indeed, a Savior has been born for us!   

We start the year with the Church asking us to celebrate National Migration Week, which runs from January 8-14. This annual observance follows the Feast of the Epiphany, when we recall that Jesus came for all of humanity, and that the Holy Family itself was forced into migration. As Catholics we believe that all people are children of God and, as such, all inherently are worthy of dignity, welcome and respect, regardless of their country of origin. Recognizing that the family is the cornerstone of society, we believe that the highest aim of our nation’s immigration policy should be uniting and keeping intact families, while honoring and upholding the laws of the nation and without compromising national security or the core principles on which our country was founded. 

Unfortunately, in our country’s long broken immigration system, these principles are not fully respected. Moreover, given the harsh rhetoric directed toward immigrants and refugees during the presidential campaign, the situation risks becoming worse. We cannot let that happen. In a Nov. 11 letter to the president-elect, the Bishops of the United States expressed our collective resolve to “work to promote humane policies that protect refugee and immigrants' inherent dignity, keep families together, and honor and respect the laws of this nation.” In the face of the dehumanizing rhetoric toward immigrants in recent months, our letter reminds us all “that behind every ‘statistic’ is a person who is a mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother and has dignity as a child of God.”

I am proud to say that, here in the Diocese of Metuchen, we have been living out Jesus’s call to welcome the stranger by embracing immigrants in various ways. In our parishes, we have welcomed and incorporated immigrant groups who have brought great gifts and energy to our building one family of God. Indeed, many of our recent immigrants have helped our Church in Central New Jersey to grow larger and stronger.  

Through your generosity to our Bishops Annual Appeal, our Diocese’s Catholic Charities provides legal, educational, and material support to thousands of immigrant families each year. Our Immigration Legal Services program helps reunite and keep together nearly 1,000 families each year. We have helped immigrant workers vulnerable to exploitation exercise their rights in the workplace, rescued victims of human trafficking, and collaborated with local police to support immigrant victims of domestic violence. This is a service we should all be proud of.

Over the last four years, our Diocese has accompanied hundreds of young people who were brought to this country without authorization when they were children in achieving a real future through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. We bishops have recommitted to supporting this program into the future, even amidst the threats to that it faces.

We know that the Catholic Church in the United States has always been an immigrant Church. Indeed, many of the Irish, Italian, Polish and Hungarian communities that helped establish the Catholic Church here in New Jersey were, historically, subject to discrimination and nativism strikingly similar to that currently directed toward today’s newcomers. Our Diocese has benefited from these new communities and, please God, will continue to flourish. I am so edified as I go around to our parishes and have been so warmly welcomed by our new immigrants who fill so many of our parishes. We in Central New Jersey have the human and financial resources to expand our outreach to the newly arriving and vulnerable immigrant community. Many of them are Catholic, and look to our Church to be a friendly face upon their arrival.  

In November, Pope Francis reminded us that “In God’s heart there are no enemies. God only has sons and daughters. We are the ones who raise walls, build barriers and label people.” As the local Church in Metuchen, our celebration of National Migration Week reminds us to continue our efforts to serve, build community, and stand in solidarity with immigrants. We will follow this path, established at the inception of our country and illuminated by our values as Christians and as Americans seeking the common good of all. We will continue these efforts and also pray that the laws of our land will promote a healthy system of immigration that benefits all while protecting the security of our country too.

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

NOTA: Esta carta fue publicada en la edición del 12 de  enero de 2017 de The Catholic Spirit, periódico oficial de la Diócesis de Metuchen.

Feliz, saludable y santo Año Nuevo para todos ustedes. Como celebré mi primera Navidad y Año Nuevo en el centro de Nueva Jersey, estuve particularmente consciente de todos aquellos que estaban en situaciones similares, como los recién llegados aquí. Cada año nuevo abraza la posibilidad de grandes promesas, y este año no es la excepción, aun en medio de la incertidumbre a que nos enfrentamos en nuestras vidas, familias, iglesia o nación.  Espero que su celebración de Navidad y Año Nuevo fueran edificantes y alegres para todos.  De hecho, ¡un Salvador ha nacido para nosotros!

Comenzamos el año con la Iglesia pidiéndonos a celebrar la Semana Nacional de Migración, que se extiende del 8 al 14 de enero. Esta celebración anual es precedida por la fiesta de la Epifanía, cuando recordamos que Jesús vino para toda la humanidad, y que la sagrada familia fue obligada a emigrar. Como católicos creemos que todas las personas son hijos de Dios y, como tal, todos esencialmente merecen dignidad, acogida y respeto, sin importar su país de origen. Reconociendo que la Familia es la piedra angular de la sociedad, creemos que el máximo objetivo de la política de inmigración de nuestra nación debe unir y mantener a las familias intactas, mientras honramos y defendemos las leyes de la nación sin comprometer la seguridad nacional o los principios fundamentales en que se fundó nuestro país.

Por desgracia, en el injusto sistema de inmigración de nuestro país, estos principios no se respetan plenamente. Por otra parte, dada la severa argumentación dirigida a inmigrantes y refugiados durante la campaña presidencial, los riesgos de su situación son cada vez peor.  No podemos dejar que eso suceda.  En una carta fechada 11 de noviembre para el Presidente electo, los obispos de los Estados Unidos expresamos nuestra determinación colectiva de "trabajar para promover políticas humanitarias que protejan la dignidad de los inmigrantes y refugiados, mantengan a las familias unidas y honren y respeten las leyes de esta nación".  Frente al discurso deshumanizante hacia los inmigrantes de los últimos meses, nuestra carta nos recuerda "que detrás de cada 'estadística' hay una persona que es madre, padre, hijo, hija, hermana o hermano y tiene dignidad como hijo de Dios".

Me siento orgulloso de decir que, aquí en la Diócesis de Metuchen, hemos estado viviendo el llamado de Jesús a dar la bienvenida al forastero acogiendo a los inmigrantes de diversas maneras. En nuestras parroquias, hemos dado la bienvenida e incorporado grupos de inmigrantes que han traído grandes regalos y energía a nuestra edificación de la familia de Dios. De hecho, muchos de nuestros recientes inmigrantes han ayudado a nuestra iglesia en Nueva Jersey Central a crecer y ser fortalecida. 

A través de su generosidad a nuestra Campaña Anual del Obispo, Caridades Católicas de la Diócesis ofrece apoyo legal, educativo y material a miles de familias de inmigrantes cada año. Nuestro programa de servicios legales de inmigración ayuda a reunir y mantener juntos a casi 1,000 familias cada año. Hemos ayudado a trabajadores inmigrantes vulnerables a la explotación a ejercer sus derechos en el trabajo, rescatamos a víctimas de trata humana y hemos colaborado con la policía local para apoyar a inmigrantes víctimas de violencia doméstica.  Este es un servicio del que debemos estar orgullosos.

En los últimos cuatro años, nuestra diócesis ha acompañado a cientos de jóvenes que fueron traídos a este país sin autorización cuando eran niños en el logro de un futuro mejor a través de la Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals o programa DACA. Nosotros los obispos nos comprometemos una vez más a apoyar este programa en el futuro, incluso en medio de las amenazas que enfrenta.

Sabemos que la iglesia católica de los Estados Unidos siempre ha sido una iglesia inmigrante.  De hecho, muchas de las comunidades irlandesa, italiana, polaca y húngara que ayudaron a establecer la iglesia católica aquí en Nueva Jersey fueron, históricamente, objeto de discriminación y nativismo sorprendentemente similar al que actualmente se dirige hacia los recién llegados. Nuestra Diócesis se ha beneficiado de estas nuevas comunidades y, si Dios quiere, seguirá floreciendo.  Estoy edificado al visitar nuestras parroquias y ser calurosamente recibido por nuestros nuevos inmigrantes que llenan muchas de nuestras parroquias. En New Jersey Central tenemos los recursos humanos y financieros para ampliar nuestro alcance a los recién llegados y la vulnerable comunidad de inmigrantes. Muchos de ellos son católicos y miran a nuestra iglesia como una cara amistosa a su llegada.

En noviembre, el Papa Francisco nos recordó que "en el corazón de Dios no hay enemigos. Dios solo tiene hijos e hijas. Nosotros somos los que elevamos muros, construimos barreras y etiquetamos la gente."  Como iglesia de Metuchen, la celebración de la Semana Nacional de Migración nos recuerda que debemos continuar nuestros esfuerzos por servir, construir comunidad y ser solidarios con los inmigrantes.  Sigamos este camino, establecido en los inicios de nuestro país e iluminado por nuestros valores como cristianos y como los americanos que buscan el bien común de todos. Continuemos estos esfuerzos y oremos por que las leyes de nuestra tierra promuevan un sistema sano de inmigración que beneficie al mismo tiempo que proteja la seguridad de nuestro país.

Muy Reverendísimo James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Obispo de Metuchen