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NOTE: The following letter was published in the September 7, 2017 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.
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