Goal of Catholic education is to make disciples of Christ

NOTE: The following letter was published in the September 7, 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.

Our thoughts and prayers these days are with our youth returning to school. After the summer break, children and young men and women, as well as their teachers are getting back into the swing of things and setting their alarms for earlier risings! Our prayers are certainly with them because the challenge of learning requires more than hard work and discipline; but also grace to make it all grow.  

Amongst these schools opening are our diocesan Catholic schools. We are blessed with 27 schools that have more than 8,500 students served by almost 800 teachers. St. John Paul II once described the mission of our Catholic schools like this: “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.” Of course, St. John Paul has in mind that every society needs saints. The work of Catholic education is to help make committed disciples of every student who knows how to think and choose as followers of Jesus Christ.

The parents of our students recognize this about our mission, too. When asked the top reasons for choosing one of our schools for their children, the vast majority respond that they chose our schools for religious reasons followed closely by the family/caring environment and the rigorous academics. That is certainly a winning combination and we are grateful to our principals, administrators, teachers and staff for making our schools such places.

Another substantial investment made by the diocese occurs on the campus of Rutgers University, thanks to your goodness to the Bishops Annual Appeal. As you well know, this is a population of vulnerable Catholics who can easily be distracted from practicing the faith. However, during college, young minds are seeking to discover meaning for themselves and start to ask questions like “Why am I here?” We need to help them to move this question to “What does God want of me?” so that they can truly find answers that will fulfill them. Unfortunately, many get off track during college, even on our Catholic college campuses. Many of our youth also fall prone to depression, anxiety and even dependency issues while struggling to discover who they are in a complicated world. 

Our culture inundates everyone, especially the young with “What will make you happy?” The problem is that the happiness of the world will not ultimately satisfy. The most prestigious degrees, the best paying jobs will leave us empty unless we learn how to make of ourselves a gift to others and ultimately to God. As a Church, we need to help our young brothers and sisters to reflect on the deep questions of life that will only be answered when they are in dialogue with The Teacher.  

In my Pastoral Letter, I spoke about creating a culture of encounter with Jesus Christ. Gratefully, our staff at Catholic Center at Rutgers is striving to make sure that this happens there. They strive to truly be an authentic Catholic community where students can have a personal encounter with Jesus and real relationships with other disciples.

The Catholic Center’s staff consists of two religious brothers, a religious sister, a lay woman, two priests and five mission leaders who work tirelessly to help the students to learn to pray and grow in discipleship. This is a great example of communion here in our local Church. Our staff and student leaders at the center reach out to every kind of student on campus. They go to dining halls, campus gyms, the campus centers and dormitories to seek and find other students and invite them first of all to discover the relationships they have found centered on a dynamic Catholic life. We are blessed to have such ministry taking place on a campus in our own diocese.

I want to encourage parents and grandparents. Your sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters have gone off to college, but they still need you. You might be the only ones in their lives encouraging them to lead a life of faith. Your faith is important to them, even if they don't express that to you. Your daily prayers are vital for them. In addition, they need to see you engaging your own faith. Share with them what your faith in Christ has meant to you in times of trial and transition. Do not doubt the effect your witness may have on their faith journey.

As the summer rest comes to a close, we join in prayer for our youth and encourage them to encounter Christ who will truly help them to answer the deep questions of life! God bless and keep you all.

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