BY KATHY CHANG
PISCATAWAY — Come May 3, the Diocese of Metuchen will have a new bishop after 14 years.
The Rev. Monsignor James F. Checchio, 49, a New Jersey native, will lead more than 640,000 Catholics in the four-county diocese comprised of Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties. He will oversee 90 parishes, 26 Catholic schools, two Catholic cemeteries, Catholic Charities-Diocese of Metuchen, the diocesan-sponsored St. Peter’s University Hospital and the Catholic Center at Rutgers University.
Pope Francis announced the appointment of Checchio at the Vatican in Rome on March 8. Checchio, who will replace long-time Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski, will serve as the fifth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen.
“Well, it is good to be home … I am looking forward to making this my home for a long time,” said Checchio at a press conference on March 8 held at the St. John Neumann Pastoral Center in Piscataway.
Checchio said he was in rural Minnesota on an ice fishing trip with friends when he found out about his appointment.
Most recently, Checchio served as rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome from January 2006 to January 2016 after serving as vice rector there for two and a half years.
He said as he was leaving Rome, he asked his bishop if he could return to parish work.
“But it never occurred to me, I would be asked to return to a parish so big,” Checchio said.
He said he is grateful for Pope Francis’ confidence in him.
“I very much look forward to working with and supporting the good pastors, priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers, who are all laboring so well in this vineyard,” he said.
Bootkoski said he is “relieved and happy” as he gets ready to retire.
“I’m very, very happy because of the man who is going to take my place, whom I respect and know that he has great credentials, and he’s very personable and a very warm and a very smart person and a man of God … for that reason I can be relieved,” he said.
Bootkoski, who has been the bishop of Metuchen since 2002, said they are encountering a historic moment for the church continuing its apostolic succession of bishops in the diocese, which began in 1982.
He said not only is Checchio responding to Pope Francis’ urging of Catholic bishops and priests to go out among their flock and know the people they serve, but there is a plus for their diocese and that is Checchio is a “Jersey guy.”
Bootkoski’s comments brought laughter from the crowd.
“So, I am a little biased because I too am a Jersey guy,” he said.
“This month marks my 14th year as bishop of Metuchen,” he said. “Throughout these years, it has been an honor and a privilege to serve the faithful of our four-county diocese and to work with some amazing people … please know that I am grateful for all your support.”
Checchio was born in Camden and raised in Collingswood.
Before his most recent service in Rome, he held various roles in the Diocese of Camden, serving as secretary to Bishop James T. McHugh, vice chancellor, director of communications, moderator of the curia and episcopal vicar for administration of the diocese.
He also served in the Tribunal and as a member of the College of Consultors, Presbyteral Council, Investment Committee and Diocesan Finance Council.
Checchio served as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish and assisted at St. Jude Parish, both in Blackwood. He was also a summer parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, Merchantville, and St. Peter Celestine Parish, Cherry Hill.
He was appointed as Chaplain to His Holiness by Pope John Paul II in 2000, granting him the title of monsignor, and was appointed a Prelate of Honor by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, a papal honor bestowed on diocesan priests.
Checchio received a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He studied at North American College, Rome, and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Camden on June 20, 1992 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Camden.
He holds a Master of Business Administration degree from LaSalle University, Philadelphia and Doctorate of Canon Law and Bachelor of Sacred Theology degrees from the University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Rome.
Checcio said there are so many factors that led him to priesthood.
“Certainly my family devotion, their faith and my parish priest and school,” he said.
Checcio said he has a cousin who became a priest and an aunt who was part of the Dominican Monastery in Syracuse, New York.
“My family would go up to visit her and seeing the job, happiness and [seeing] the effect of living in close relationships with Christ had on her and other people left a lasting impression on me as a child,” he said.
Checcio also noted his bishop announcement falls on his late grandmother’s birthday, which choked up his father when he told him on March 6.
The bishop-elect said the size of the diocese is certainly a challenge, and on a lighter note he said another challenge would be figuring out what sporting teams to root for. Checchio’s comments brought laughter from the crowd.
He said in his former diocese as chaplain for the Philadelphia Eagles, it was easy to root for the teams across the bridge in Philadelphia.
Checchio said he has already developed a soft spot for the New York Giants since he is friends with the team’s defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, noting that he married Spagnuolo and his wife 10 years ago at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The Rev. Monsignor Robert J. Zamorski, pastor at St. Francis Cathedral Parish in Metuchen, said they look forward to working with the new bishop.
Zamorski said a Mass was celebrated last week to welcome Checchio with those in the diocese.
“It was very nice,” he said. “Bishop Paul [Bootkoski] celebrated while Bishop-elect Checchio preached.”
Bootkoski will continue to oversee the Diocese of Metuchen until Checchio is ordained and installed on May 3.