On Rome, home and parish ministry: An interview with Bishop-elect James F. Checchio

On Rome, home and parish ministry: An interview with Bishop-elect James F. Checchio


Recently, the Catholic Star Herald sat down with Bishop-elect James F. Checchio to discuss his recent appointment as Bishop of Metuchen, as well as his experience as a priest. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Catholic Star Herald: How did your experiences in Camden prepare you for your assignment in Rome at North American College?

Bishop-elect Checchio: While I was a priest in Camden, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio sent me to LaSalle University, where I received my Master’s in Business Administration. I first went to Rome to run the administration of the college, and the business part of the college, (dealing with) employees, finances, buildingm and currency exchange.

When I became rector (in 2006), I spent most of my time training parish priests. From Camden, I learned from the examples of older priests (who became my mentors), working, watching, and observing, and I took away how to be a parish priest.

The parish is the most important ministry in the diocese, where most of the ministry takes place, where people are nourished and fed, and counseled and assisted. I interacted with parish families, saw their enthusiasm, their dedication to their faith and to their development of their friendship with Christ, and how they accomplish that through the church and sacraments, and give the same thing to their children.

I learned from the families, what they needed, and what would be helpful to assist them. I asked how the parish could coordinate our worship, so that they were being fed spiritually, so that they were being nourished for what they had to do, to support their family and marriage, and to be the leaven in the society that the church asks them to be.

I’ve helped seminarians realize the need to be good Catholics, to understand the things they need to take care, in their own lives, physically, mentally and spiritually, and prepared them intellectually, and how to (find) balance, to make them the most effective priests they can be.

I’ve passed on what I’ve learned over the years, and my own mistakes too, that I’ve made in my ministry.

CSH: What do you see as the advantages a young man has, when studying for the priesthood in Rome, as opposed to getting their formation in the United States?

Bishop-elect Checchio: There are lots of benefits to studying to Rome. Of course, there are similarities, in building up the four pillars of seminary formation: the intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human development.

(Just as American seminaries do), we look for men who are bright, striving for holiness, who are balanced, pastorally motivated, but also for a man who has a good degree of flexibility, to be able to live in a foreign culture, to study a foreign language, and be in the mix of the international scene; people are there not only from the city of Rome, but from all over the world.

Pope Pius IX’s vision was to have all these national colleges in the city, so that countries don’t become isolated in a sense, thinking their church is the church; there’s more to it than Camden, or the United States.

It’s such a broadening experience for a man to see all that’s going on in the world, and the church, and the needs, the benefits and the crosses that some of these churches carry. It kind of helps to have a broader vision in a sense. It’s a unique opportunity for a man to experience something different.

In addition, it’s close to the Holy Father, and he becomes a welcome friend and voice, (when men) go every week to hear him speak, and receive his blessing. So much of the life of the church takes place in Rome, the pope becomes a true Father to us, by our proximity.

CSH: Are you going to miss Rome?

Bishop-elect Checchio: I miss the men at the college, and aspects of the seminary life, but I was long enough in Rome, and ready to come home.

Being the rector at NAC is going to be one of the privileges of my life and my priestly ministry. To have that job and the opportunity to interact with the young men, to help form future priests and shepherds of the flock, be able to influence them a bit, and how they will approach the priesthood, it certainly was an honor and a privilege.

But I missed family and friends primarily, and the opportunities for ministry. I have good friends here, but it’s not the same when you don’t interact with them regularly. I missed the parish experience. And I recently had the unique opportunity to marry my nephews, my sister’s children, and baptize my great-niece.

I’m so grateful for the experiences I had there over the years, but home is home.

CSH: What are your thoughts about the state of the Catholic Church, and where it is headed?

Bishop-elect Checchio: It’s a great time for the Catholic Church, I think. The church is growing throughout the world, the message of the Gospel is spreading.

The future of the church, the future of the priesthood in the United States is strong and growing. During my time at NAC, the place went from 140 to 250 seminarians, with 101 U.S. dioceses sending men there for formation.

The men coming forward and answering God’s call are so inspiring. I give them credit, number one, just for hearing it; in this day and age, the ability to hear a call is very difficult and challenging.

These men have heard it, and then had the courage to respond; it gives you an indication of their good virtue, strength and character.

These men are not blind to the problems and issues we face in the United States; they are very much aware, because they grew up in it and know it better than I do. They are aware of the struggles and challenges that the church has faced in these years, and they want to make it better. They want to help make the church a better witness for our country.

CSH: How are you preparing for your upcoming assignment in Metuchen as their bishop?

Bishop-designate Checchio: I am still learning about Metuchen, getting to know the people of the diocese; what are their unique aspects, and what’s the reflection of the Gospel that they most brightly reflect back?

The philosophy I had in Rome, and in Camden, during my ministry was developing friendship with Christ. Everything hinges on our friendship with Jesus, what kind of person we are. If we know who are in Christ, that changes everything in our lives, and truly becomes a part of our lives in how we act. I will do whatever I can to encourage that.

My episcopal motto as bishop is, “Be Reconciled to God,” from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. My ministry is to reconcile them with Christ, and this will be a good reminder for myself, and constant encouragement to the people of Metuchen.

CSH: How do you, personally, maintain a healthy spiritual life?

Bishop-elect Checchio: During my time in Rome, prayer was built into our work. Communal morning and evening prayer, a holy hour, and daily Mass.

Coming back to the United States, the challenge is now to continue those practices. I go for a walk every morning and pray the rosary. You have to take care of the most important things, keep the staples (of prayer and Eucharist). We have to balance our lives to keep the most important things first, and obviously a spiritual life is the most important thing for all people.

Early on in my time as rector, I met with Pope Benedict XVI, who told me to “make sure you tell the priests to keep their spiritual lives first.”

His words were not only a great lesson to me, but to the men I passed them on to.


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