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NOTE: The following letter was published in the March 22, 2018 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On March 13, we marked the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election as the successor of St. Peter! It certainly has been a quick five years. The election of a pope and witnessing his ministry are gifts for the Church and for all people of goodwill as we see how God, through the actions of the Holy Spirit, is guiding the Church.
I was blessed to be ministering in Rome and actually in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis was elected, as I was when Pope Benedict was elected. It was quite a thrill to see both of these great popes emerge onto the central loggia of St. Peter’s for the first time and to receive their blessing. My priestly spirituality and ministry has been greatly influenced by both of these popes as I had a chance to hear them teach in St. Peter’s so often at Masses and audiences, share in prayer with them, and even was blessed to have had private meetings with each of them while serving as rector of the Pontifical North American College.
Recalling the election of Pope Francis, I still remember the second day of the conclave of cardinals who were gathered in the Sistine Chapel in prayer to elect Pope Benedict’s successor. Since we did not expect the cardinals to reach a definitive vote quickly, some friends and I were planning on having dinner together while some of their bosses were tied up in the conclave. We met in the square before dinner to see the smoke from the chimney burning the ballots, expecting it to be black signifying no new pope. Much to our surprise, as well as the people in the square, the smoke at first came out black, but turned to white.
There was great excitement in the square as everyone pushed forward toward St. Peter’s Basilica to try and get a good spot to see the new Holy Father come out on the major balcony of St. Peter’s for the first time. There was much shouting, prayers and even tears. Of course, we all spoke about who we thought the new pope might be. No one I heard had guessed Papa Bergoglio. Even after he arrived and they announced the joyful news including his name, many were still not sure who he was. We have certainly learned all about him since that momentous day.
Our new Holy Father chose the name Francis, the first time a pope has ever chosen this name. He wanted to emulate St. Francis’ life of simplicity and his emphasis on the love and mercy of God for us and all His creation. The new pope would also speak about his desire to have a special place for the poor in his Petrine ministry. Over the past five years, he has carried out his mission, by how he lives his life and his regular visits with and care for the poor in Rome and throughout the world.
If I had to pick one word that characterizes his pontificate, I would say it is joy. Two of the major documents he has written to guide us in our work of evangelization and building up the Kingdom of God bear joy in their titles: “The Joy of the Gospel” and “The Joy of Love.” He encourages us to always share with others the love that God has for each of us and asks us to share our own joy in sharing the good news of the Gospel with others. He has reminded us that bringing others the announcement of the salvation of Jesus should be a source of joy not only for those who receive it, but also for those who proclaim it, a shared joy.
As we begin Holy Week, I ask you to join me in praying that God preserve our Holy Father and give him strength to continue to guide the Barque of St. Peter in our turbulent days. This most sacred week of the year brings us into contact with the saving mysteries of our faith as we celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. It is a time for our faith to be fortified by our giving ourselves more generously in prayer as we deepen our own friendship with Jesus, grateful for the great gifts with which He blesses us.
Know of my love and prayers for you, especially during this sacred time, and please pray for me too. God bless you all!
The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen