Despite challenges of life in diocese, God is always with us

NOTE: The following letter was published in the March 8, 2018 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This past week, I was able to join tens of thousands of others from across the country at the events surrounding the 2018 March for Life which is held annually in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in our land. This year marks 45 years since this tragic decision.
I was so impressed by the number and diversity of youth in attendance. While recent surveys show that Millennials (ages 18-31) are increasingly opposed to abortion, I was able to experience first-hand their infusion of enthusiasm as I saw scores of teenagers and college-age students praying for life at the National Prayer Vigil at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Youth Mass at the Capital One Center. Students from our own high schools as well as young adults from Rutgers Catholic Ministry and our parishes were among the many young people chanting “We are the Pro-Life Generation!” as they rallied at the March for Life.
Perhaps it is the development of technologies such as 3-D ultrasound, which shows the beautiful reality of human life growing in the womb, which has contributed to the shifting opinions and attitudes regarding life. Whatever the reason, the March for Life, with its youthful presence, has become a symbol of hope for an abortion-free America. No doubt, the prayers of many are having an effect!
The theme of this year’s March for Life was “Love Saves Lives.” We know that as Christians ‘love’ is our mission. I am grateful to so many of our faithful from across the Diocese of Metuchen who put this mission into action every day serving life at all stages and in every condition. Here are just a few examples of the good work being done by members of our local Church:
those who assist women facing unplanned pregnancies at local pregnancy help centers, 
healthcare workers at the Gianna Center who care for couples facing infertility in a way that respects a woman’s dignity and the sanctity of human life, 
doctors and nurses at Saint Peter’s University Hospital who humbly care for the sick, the injured and the terminally ill, 
the staff at the Center for Great Expectations who offer a safe place for homeless, pregnant or parenting women and their children, 
the religious sisters at St. Joseph’s Senior home who witness to the compassionate Christ by serving the sick, elderly,
the folks at our Catholic Charities who serve the poor, the vulnerable, the immigrant and all people in need in more ways than I would be able to list! Your contributions to the Bishops Annual Appeal make this invaluable ministry possible!
Working to build a culture of life and love also means speaking up to advocate for public policy, which protects all human life, especially the innocent unborn child in the womb, but including all those who are vulnerable – the frail elderly, the sick, the dying, the homeless, the imprisoned and the immigrant.  
This March for Life was historic because the President of the United States addressed the crowd for the first time ‘live’ via satellite from the Rose Garden at the White House promising his support for the babies in the womb and their mothers and pointing to several legislative measures which have been taken in the past year for their protection. Progress is being made in this pro-life area and our voices matter.
This past December marked the 10th Anniversary of the Elimination of the Death Penalty in New Jersey. Ten years ago (Dec. 19, 2007), I was able to be present when the Colosseum in Rome glowed in honor of New Jersey with the words, “There is no justice without life.” While we recognize the horror of violent crimes and grieve for the victims, we believe that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, who alone is the absolute Lord of life from its beginning until its end (Genesis 1:26-28). The death penalty diminishes us as a society. We cannot teach respect for life by taking life.
In the same way, we need to oppose the pending legislation in New Jersey that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in our state for those who face terminal illness. As St. Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.” Suicide is always a tragedy. Love saves lives. When life is difficult, we need to turn to Jesus who can deliver us from the power of darkness.  
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to Jennifer Ruggiero, director of our diocesan Office of Human Life & Dignity, and all those from around the diocese who helped to organize bus trips so that pro-life pilgrims, young and old, from our diocese could join so many others in witnessing to life.
I encourage all who attended the 2018 March for Life events to share your experiences on social media and in conversations with family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. In this way, as missionary disciples of Christ, we can work at changing hearts and minds about the injustice of abortion and other attacks on human life. Nothing is more convincing than a joyful witness! With God, who is Love, we can help to transform the world.

As I thought and prayed about what to write in this column, I realized there were many things that I wanted to share with you.  

Let me begin with Ash Wednesday when we were all stunned and saddened, by the tragic, useless killing of 17 high school students in Parkland, Florida. Last week, I invited students from each of our four Catholic High Schools to come and meet. I had heard much from other students through the media, but I wanted to hear from our own students, to be close to them and pray with them. I was so impressed by their insights and thoughtfulness, and their wanting to help be agents for change and prayer. We are blessed with impressive young men and women in our diocesan Church.  

Then on Feb. 18, the first Sunday of Lent, I officiated at the Rite of Election in our Cathedral. It was a full house, with lots of excitement. The Lord is blessing us with 120 people seeking baptism at Easter this year, while we have 165 candidates making the profession of faith and receiving confirmation and first Communion. We thank God for all those who are cooperating with His grace and working so hard to prepare themselves for entry into the Church. We are praying for you all! Thanks, too, to Sara Sharlow our director of the diocesan RCIA office and to all our brothers and sisters who are overseeing the process in our parishes. How grateful we are for these abundant graces.

Currently, I am very aware of the great efforts our priests and deacons, along with our lay leadership in our parishes, are putting in to this year’s Bishop’s Annual Appeal. I am so grateful for the encouraging early returns that have been shared with me. You are generous and kind in supporting this great common effort. I want you to know how seriously the diocese takes our responsibility to be good stewards with what you entrust to us. You will find on pages 19 to 22 of this newspaper, a letter from me and our financial report for last year, which covered my first full year as your bishop. We have made good progress in carefully trimming the budget where possible and increasing our revenue, while trying to concentrate more energy and resources on the needed ministries of our day. I want to thank you for your generosity, which allowed us to have our first balanced budget in a few years! 

On March 1, it was 22 years since Bishop Hughes founded The Catholic Spirit. Bishop Hughes said that he wanted our newspaper to help strengthen the faith of our Catholic people, keep them informed about the Church, about what it does and its teachings, and to challenge them. In our day, as our managing editor recently wrote, The Catholic Spirit is a vehicle of evangelization, a tangible medium of communication for Catholics to know what is happening within the diocese and the conduit through which the Shepherd of Metuchen corresponds with his flock. I want to thank all those who contribute to making our paper the effective instrument it is. I thank you, too, for being a faithful reader. 

Tragically, heavy on my heart has been was the removal of one of our priest from his assignment due to allegations of sexual abuse from over 30 years ago before he was ordained a priest. I ask you to please see my letter to the parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Virgin in Middlesex on page 4. I will go to the parish next week for a pastoral visit and to pray with parishioners there. I know I can count on your prayers for all who have been hurt and confused by this sad situation.     

Yes, as I sat down to write to you, I wanted to share with you the thoughts and feelings in my heart about these events and others, too. It is hard to believe that we are already three weeks in to Lent. As we began this holy season, we committed ourselves to deepening our friendship with Christ, converting our hearts to be more like His, through increased prayers, almsgiving and fasting. As we experience all these ups and downs in our life as a diocese, but also personally too, throughout them all, we know that God is always with us, and He never tires of waiting for us to turn to Him again. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this midway point of Lent is a good time to ask ourselves, “How am I doing this Lent, amidst all the blessings and challenges I have experienced during these weeks? Do I need to continue on the course I am on, or do I need to start anew, or redouble my efforts?” It is never too late to start anew. Pope Francis is always reminding us that the Lord never tires of awaiting us. His grace is there for us, to be with us and carry us through each day, with all its blessings and challenges. God awaits us in the sacrifice of the Mass each Sunday, in our quiet daily prayer, in the Blessed Sacrament where we can always encounter Him during visits, and in our acts of charity especially to those in need. We only have a few weeks left in Lent to prepare for the glories of Easter. These last weeks can be the best ones for us, as He is awaiting, and will accompany us through the good and the bad we face.

God bless you and know of my love and prayers for you.  

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