Tuesday, March 08, 2016

After The "Decade," The Checchio Diocese – Pope Names NAC Chief to Metuchen

(Updated 11am ET with ordination date, Bishop-elect's statement.)

All of five weeks since Msgr Jim Checchio departed The Hill after a transformative decade as Rector of the Pontifical North American College, the long-expected final part of the sendoff has come to pass: at Roman Noon, the Pope named the son of South Jersey up the Turnpike as fifth bishop of Metuchen, just shy of his 50th birthday next month. (The duo are seen above during Francis' visit to the NAC last May.)

Inheriting the leadership of some 650,000 Catholics in the four counties of Central Jersey's northern half, Checchio succeeds Bishop Paul Bootkoski, who guided the diocese for 14 years as its population increased by over a third – a very unusual reality for a region mostly accustomed to "managing decline" in terms of its Catholic presence. A Newark native, Bootkoski reached the retirement age of 75 last July.

Founded in 1981 at the growing southern edge of metropolitan New York, Metuchen is the youngest diocese of the Northeastern US and – with both the Amtrak Corridor and New Jersey Turnpike (I-95) running straight through it – among the nation's most heavily-traversed. Accordingly, while the turf is principally comprised of bedroom suburbs teeming with workers who commute to New York or Trenton, it likewise spans several onetime manufacturing hubs now being reoccupied by recent immigrants, one of the US' largest and best regarded public universities – Rutgers in New Brunswick – and the picturesque rural hideaways of the Garden State's horse country. (In other words, everything but a piece of the Shore.)

Ordained in 1992 and having earned both a JCD and MBA in later studies, the bishop-elect built a rep as a warm, effective hard worker in a host of South Jersey parishes and Chancery posts before returning to his Roman alma mater as vice-rector/Economo (CFO) in 2003. Upon becoming the NAC's 22nd rector at age 39 in late 2005 – the first Italian-American to hold the post – Checchio oversaw an extraordinary period of growth and vitality for the Stateside church's most influential formation house, increasing enrollment by some two-thirds (a spike which made the 158 year-old college the largest American seminary and produced its biggest classes since the 1960s), as well as undertaking a significant building and maintenance overhaul on both its campuses, topped by the $8 million, 10-story tower of new classrooms, which was dedicated last year by the Cardinal-Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

Having sent forth almost 500 men into ordained ministry over what's become known as the "Checchio Decade," upon the rector's departure one colleague remarked in the NAC's magazine that "perhaps no living American" has provided more priests for the church in this country. The bishop-elect's successor, Fr Pete Harman of Springfield, Illinois, took office last month.

While Checchio had been granted a sabbatical since coming home to adjust and rest up before beginning his next assignment in Camden, reports that he would receive the Metuchen appointment upon his return to the States have circulated since last summer, when the end of his second five-year term at the College saw the transition process begin in earnest.

Among the ranks of the hierarchy, the bishop-elect now joins most of the NAC's rectors over its history, including two of his living predecessors, now-Cardinals Edwin O'Brien and Timothy Dolan, both of whom were likewise named bishops in rapid order after their terms atop the Gianicolo were completed (in those cases, however, both began as auxiliaries). For Checchio's home-church, meanwhile, the appointment is a particularly historic and sweet moment: with Camden's 80th anniversary coming late next year, today's appointee becomes the first South Jersey priest ever tapped to lead a diocese, and but the second named a bishop.

On the wider scene of Catholic Jersey, the move adds even further clout to a state bench culled from the A-list of national and international church leadership: to Metuchen's south, Bishop David O'Connell landed in the 850,000-member Trenton church after a banner decade as president of the Catholic University of America, Camden's own Bishop Dennis Sullivan found his heaven in Wawa Country after a long stint in the most challenging and thankless Chancery job known to man (read: vicar-general of New York), and on Checchio's new northern flank, Newark awaits the July succession (after three years in traffic... horrid detour included) of Archbishop Bernie Hebda, who spent a decade as one of the Holy See's top canonists (while moonlighting as a NAC spiritual director) before being placed in line to lead the 1.3 million-member local church, the US' seventh-largest.

Today's appointment rounds out a hat-trick that's seen three of Rome's foremost US priests depart the city as bishops over less than four months: in November, Francis named the longtime CDF official Msgr Steven Lopes, a 40 year-old San Francisco native, as the first bishop to lead the continent-wide ordinariate for Anglicans who've "swum the Tiber," and next week brings the ordination of Tulsa's own Archbishop-elect Peter Wells, 52, who the Pope has dispatched as Nuncio to South Africa after seven years as Assessore of the Secretariat of State, essentially the Holy See's "deputy chief of staff."

Speaking of Roman diplomacy, today's appointment defies what's mostly been a months-long holding pattern on Stateside picks in light of the impending selection of a new Nuncio to Washington following January's 75th birthday of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

With the Metuchen file now off the desk, three US dioceses stand vacant, with another eight led by prelates serving past the retirement age; among the latter group, Bishop Roger Morin of Biloxi just reached the milestone yesterday. On the whole, the pending docket is topped by two appointments of outsize importance: the succession to Long Island's 1.6 million-member fold based in Rockville Centre, where Bishop William Murphy turned 75 last May... and above all, the next archbishop of a battered church in the Twin Cities, a charge still immersed in pain on practically every front (and facing some 400 lawsuits) in the wake of a sex-abuse firestorm.

Likely to be one of the US church's largest and most exuberant rites of its kind over recent decades, Checchio's ordination and installation in Metuchen must take place within four months of this morning's appointment. In another notable tie to the new bishop's last post, his principal consecrator – the metropolitan of New Jersey, Archbishop John Myers of Newark – likewise serves as chairman of the NAC's board of trustees.

SVILUPPO: As the Appointment Day presser begins at the Chancery in Piscataway (fullvid), it's emerged that Checchio will be ordained on the feast of Saints Philip and James, Tuesday 3 May. The site was not announced; given the expected NAC-related throngs who'd want to attend, a venue larger than St Francis Cathedral might well be required. (Indeed, Bootkoski's own installation was held in a local arena.)

And here, as prepared for delivery, the bishop-elect's introductory statement to the Metuchen church, preceded by the showing of a Catholic News Service retrospective of his tenure on the Hill....

Good morning. Praised be Jesus Christ! I’m a little embarrassed with the CNS video being shown as an introduction to our gathering. That video was made in my final days in Rome, as I finished ten years as Rector of the Pontifical North American College on February 1, and began a sabbatical, which was to run until July! I had hoped during my sabbatical to spend time with some family and friends, go on retreat, then do some writing on seminary formation, and finally study Spanish in preparation for becoming a pastor in my home diocese.

As of last Monday, those plans have changed! I was in rural Minnesota with some lay and priest friends. Unbeknownst to me, the cell phone reception was not so good and all my calls were going in to voicemail. When I finally realized that something probably wasn’t right and I checked the messages, I discovered that Archbishop Vigano, the Apostolic Nuncio, had called. When we arrived at the rectory where I was staying, I slipped in to my bedroom and called the Archbishop back, while my friends were waiting for me in the living room, to go ice-fishing. The Archbishop, aware from past discussions that I desired to return home from Rome to serve in my diocese and be nearer to my family, after some friendly discussion said to me, “Monsignor, it’s good you did come home from Rome, for I’m happy to tell you that Pope Francis is appointing you as the bishop of Metuchen.”

After we hung up, I knelt down next to the bed and before a crucifix and said a prayer to Our Lady for the priests and faithful of the Diocese of Metuchen and to ask for her protection and assistance for me. I then got up, joined my friends and off we went ice fishing. I pray that I will be more successful as a bishop than I was at ice fishing.

My primary work these past 12 ½ years has been in forming seminarians so that they can serve as effective parish priests here in our beloved homeland. I know that the parish is crucially important in the life of the Church and as I was leaving Rome I asked my bishop if I could return to parish work. It never occurred to me that I would be asked to be pastor of a parish this big! I’m grateful for the Holy Father’s confidence that I will be able to shepherd this vibrant Church of over 640,000 souls, and I very much look forward to working with and supporting the good pastors, priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers who are already laboring in this vineyard.

St. Augustine once defined the office of bishop, as an “Office of Love”, as it is the Bishop who is to give certainty that the pastoral charity of Jesus Christ is never lacking in a local Church. Touched by a bit of holy fear, I am certainly humbled to become the shepherd of this wonderful diocese and I look forward to striving to fulfill the demanding task of ensuring that the pastoral charity of Jesus Christ continues to be abundant here in Metuchen. I promise you my prayers and my commitment to serve to the best of my abilities.

I learned after my ordination to the priesthood that although ordination brought many, many graces with it, it didn’t infuse the perfection of the virtues, and I imagine ordination to the episcopacy will be the same…so I am very much aware of my own deficiencies but at the same time encouraged to be taking on this office during this great Jubilee of Mercy. I’m likewise inspired by the wonderful example of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who sets such a high and challenging standard for us.

I’ve been reading everything that I can find about the Diocese of Metuchen and know that it is still a young diocese, 35 years this upcoming fall. Now this young diocese has a baby bishop to go with it and I’m going to be depending upon your help and prayers. In particular, I will be grateful for the advice and support of Bishop Paul Bootkoski who will be close by and who has led and loved the people of this diocese for the past 14 years. Thank you, Bishop, for your good leadership and care of this diocese.

I have a lot of gratitude in my heart today and I’d like to offer some words of appreciation:

I love being a priest, and I’m so grateful to God for His love and for His calling me to be with Him and follow Him in the priesthood. I’m also grateful to God for the grace He has given me over these 23 years which has sustained me in being faithful to my priestly promises.

I’m grateful to my mom and dad for the gift of life and for teaching their children what love looks like in daily life. I am thankful as well to my 2 sisters and my brother and their spouses, as well as my 6 nieces and nephews: I count it a blessing to be in a family of love, encouragement and patience. Extended family and friends so often take on this role for us too, and I’ve been blessed with an abundance of these.

I’m grateful as well to the Church which has nurtured me in the faith over the years. Except for my years in seminary, both in formation and on the faculty, I’ve lived in the Diocese of Camden all my life. There, I was blessed with a great home parish-- St. John’s in Collingswood. I attended the parish grammar school and then was educated at a nearby Catholic High School, Paul VI. In all of those years of Catholic education, I had priests, sisters and teachers who encouraged and nourished me. As a matter of fact, at St. John’s I often heard our good and generous Mercy Sisters speak lovingly of their community and motherhouse here in Watchung, here in this Diocese. I’m grateful to that local religious community and to all who worked to pass on the faith to me.

I’ve also been blessed with good priest mentors, especially from the presbyterate in Camden and from the faculty, past and present, of the North American College: exceptional men of God, who helped teach me how to be a pastor and shepherd. We’ve had great bishops in Camden and I consider it a real privilege to have had the opportunity to work closely with a few of them, seeing firsthand the necessity that the Bishop be a man of prayer and communion, in close friendship with the Lord, especially given the challenges involved in shepherding a diocese.

I’m particularly grateful that the recent bishops of Camden allowed me to become involved in the work of priestly formation at the North American College. That experience has deepened my love for the priesthood and the Church and enriched my own priestly life and ministry, as I, along with our exceptional formation faculty, annually shepherded the 250 generous, dedicated seminarians of the Pontifical North American College, the 78 priests from our graduate house, the Casa Santa Maria, and the 33 priests who came each semester for sabbatical. I have no doubt that the daily inspiration I had received from them has been a unique preparation for me for this new ministry here with you.

As I prepare to begin to serve in this beautiful diocese, I ask for your prayers and will be depending upon them. I pray that we may together build up this portion of the people of God into an enduring and convincing sign of the Kingdom for our Church and world. Thank you and God bless you.