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Suspect arrested after arson destroys NJ church

Newark, N.J., Dec 11, 2019 / 04:33 pm (CNA).- A suspect is in custody after an early-morning arson destroyed a Catholic parish in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.

James Mayers, who has been identified as a 26-year-old who lives in Franklin Lakes, was arrested shortly after a fire broke out at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish around 1:30 a.m. The fire completely destroyed the parish and was mostly extinguished by 4 a.m.

“An investigation revealed that James Z. Mayers entered the structure during the early morning hours of December 11, 2019, and purposely started the fire with the use of gasoline and a cigarette lighter. Mayers was arrested at the scene and treated by first responders for thermal injuries he sustained while starting the fire,” a statement released Wednesday afternoon by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office said.

Mayers will be charged with one account of aggravated arson and one count of burglary. It was not immediately clear what Mayers is accused of stealing. He is being held in the Bergen County Jail awaiting a court appearance.

Fire crews arrived at the parish quickly after the fire was reported and began working to put out the flames.

The township’s police captain, John Bakelaar, told to local media that “damage to the church is complete” and that “the fire was extensive.”

It is unclear if Mayers was a parishioner at Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament, had attended its school, or was in any way connected to the church.

Classes were canceled on Wednesday at Academy of the Most Blessed Sacrament, which is located near the parish building. The school was not damaged by the fire.

A statement from the Archdiocese of Newark thanked those who worked to fight the fire and who attempted to save the church building, “during frigid conditions.”
“We are moving forward to ensure parish life continues and we are currently identifying alternative sites for Masses, liturgies, and parish activities,” the archdiocese said.

“We ask everyone to please pray for all who have been affected by this incident.”

US education department may allow religious to receive federal student aid

Washington D.C., Dec 11, 2019 / 04:11 pm (CNA).- The US Department of Education is proposing to restore eligibility to members of religious orders for certain federal higher education student aid programs.

In a proposed rule announced Dec. 10, the agency said regulatory changes would “restore the ability” of members of religious orders to access certain federal higher education aid programs, “eliminating regulatory provisions that treat members of religious orders as having no financial need in certain circumstances.”
 
The agency said the rule would ensure that “otherwise eligible students and faith-based entities” wouldn’t be shut out of Title IV, Higher Education Act programs on account of their religious affiliation.
 
Currently, members of religious orders are considered, under certain subsidized federal student aid programs, to have no “financial need.” They are eligible, however, for certain unsubsidized federal aid programs.
 
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the proposed rule change protects against religious discrimination in federal higher education aid policy.
 
“Faith-based institutions should not have to worry about losing access to federal programs due to their faith,” DeVos stated Dec. 10.
 
“These new rules will ensure a level playing field and will guarantee that individuals and institutions can continue to practice their faith and adhere to their values without losing the federal funding opportunities otherwise available to others,” she stated.
 
The proposed rule would also “eliminate arbitrary limitations” on religious schools’ participation in the federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, which helps low-income students prepare for college.
 
Students who borrowed money to pay for college could defer some federal loans if they are volunteering full-time in a tax-exempt organization, and their responsibilities include religious instruction or other religious duties.
 
The Department of Education said it issued the rule in light of the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer that a church could not be shut out of a public grant program simply because it was a church.
 
The case was considered a significant ruling in favor of equal access of houses of worship or religious institutions to public grant programs, and against old state laws barring their eligibility for public grants simply on account of their religious status.
 
The rule was also based on the administration’s policy of promoting religious freedom, as outlined in President Trump’s May 2017 executive order on religious liberty, as well as October 2017 guidance from the attorney general on federal protections for religious liberty.

Archbishop Gomez asks prayers for Francis on his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination

Los Angeles, Calif., Dec 11, 2019 / 03:50 pm (CNA).- As Pope Francis prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood Friday, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. bishop’s conference, is asking Catholics throughout the country to pray for the Pope.

“In honor of Pope Francis and in celebration of his service to the Church, I would ask that you consider encouraging the faithful in your dioceses to mark the Holy Father’s jubilee with special prayers for him in his priestly ministry,” Gomez said in a letter sent to U.S. bishops Dec. 5.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus Dec. 13, 1969, in Buenos Aires. Four years later, he made his final profession of vows, and he was elected to the papacy March 13, 2013.

“May Jesus the High Priest continue to renew, increase, and strengthen in Pope Francis the graces received at his ordination as he continues to carry his priestly ministry in service to our Holy Church,” Gomez added.

Attached to the letter to bishops were prayers for the Pope to be said during Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours for Pope Francis. The attachment also included a note that while Dec. 13 is normally celebrated as the memorial of St. Lucy, the Roman Missal allows the celebrant of a Mass to use one of the Masses for Various Needs on this day, if “some real necessity or pastoral advantage requires it.”

“In the first section of these Masses (the Masses For Holy Church), the second Mass is For the Pope and would be appropriate to use in honor of the fifty years of priesthood of Pope Francis,” the attachment notes.

Pope Francis’ 50th ordination anniversary is also being commemorated with two Vatican stamps of the pope; one a painting of a young Fr. Bergoglio, and the other a painting of him as Pope Francis.

Sainthood cause advances for religious sister, educator who fought racism

Baltimore, Md., Dec 11, 2019 / 12:30 am (CNA).- In the race to see who will become the first canonized black American saint, one candidate’s cause has advanced: Mother Mary Lange, a renowned educator and founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first community of religious sisters in the United States for women of color.

In an announcement last week from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, where Mother Mary Lange lived and served, Archbishop William Lori said that “I’m happy to say her cause is moving along.”

After meeting with Vatican officials about Lange’s cause last week, Lori reported that the paper arguing for her life of heroic virtue was nearly finished, and that the “positio,” another document arguing for her cause for canonization, was complete and being sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If approved, the document will be forwarded to Pope Francis, who would then be able to grant the title of “Venerable” to Mother Mary Lange.

Scant concrete details are known about the early life of Mother Lange. She was born Elizabeth Clarisse Lange sometime around the year 1784, most likely in a French-speaking area of Santiago, Cuba. Her parents were reportedly refugees who fled to Cuba from a revolution in their native Saint Domingue (in present-day Haiti), according to the Black and Indian Mission Office.

In the early 1800s, Lange emigrated to the United States from Cuba, and settled in Baltimore, Maryland, a popular landing spot for other French-speaking Catholic Haitian refugees at the time. She arrived in the U.S. well-educated and with some money to her name, indicating that her parents were also educated and well-off.

According to the Mother Lange Guild, Lange was living in Baltimore by 1813, and soon after realized that the children of her fellow refugees were in desperate need of education, something that was hard to come by for black children in pre-Civil War America.

Together with a friend, Marie Magdelaine Balas, Lange began offering free education to children of color from her home. In 1828, Lange was approached by a priest, Reverend James Hector Joubert, S.S., about officially founding a Catholic school for girls of color. Lange told the priest that she had been wanting to dedicate her life to God, and that she wanted to start not only the school but also a religious order of sisters for women of color. Permission was granted, and in 1829, Lange and three other women (including Balas) took their first vows as Oblate Sisters of Providence. Lange, who became the superior of the order, took the religious name of Mary, and became known as Mother Mary Lange.

The first paragraph of their order’s rule spelled out their vocation and mission: “The Oblate Sisters of Providence are a religious society of virgins and widows of color. Their end is to consecrate themselves to God in a special manner not only to sanctify themselves and thereby secure the greater glory of God, but also to work for the Christian education of colored children.”

“Our sole wish is to do the will of God,” Mother Lange once said of her order, according to the Oblate Sisters.

The school founded by the sisters, St. Frances Academy, is the oldest, continuously running school for black Catholics in the United States, and remains open today. By 1860, all children of color attending Catholic school in Baltimore were educated in schools run by the Oblate Sisters.

In 1843, the sisters suffered a blow at the death of Fr. Joubert, who had been their biggest supporter since the founding of the order. Combating poverty and racism, the sisters scrambled to shore up their order as some members left, and the Sulpician priests, the order to which Joubert had belonged, were no longer able to support the sisters.

“There was a sense of abandonment at the dwindling number of pupils and defections of her closest companions and co-workers,” the Mother Lange Guild states in her biography. “Yet, through it all Mother Mary never lost faith in Providence.”

During her lifetime, Lange and her sisters not only educated children of color, but they housed orphans and vulnerable elderly, and took in extra washing and mending and begged on the streets to support those in their care. In 1832, the sisters also cared for the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic. After the Civil War, the sisters cared for dozens of black orphans who were living in Baltimore. On February 3, 1882, after a long life of service to others, Mother Mary Lange died.

“Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree,” the Guild wrote of her. “In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to persevere against all odds. To her black brothers and sisters she gave of herself and her material possessions until she was empty of all but Jesus, whom she shared generously with all by being a living witness to his teaching.”

Lori added that Mother Lange was “a person who was in every way a pioneer” who “stood head and shoulders above the racism of her era.”

Should Lange be declared Venerable, the next step in her cause for canonization would be for a miracle through her intercession to occur and be approved by the Vatican.

China punishes families of those who speak out in America, Congress hears

Washington D.C., Dec 10, 2019 / 07:00 pm (CNA).- A Uighur-American whose mother has been held captive in a Chinese detention camp was one of several witnesses to testify on Tuesday before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the unfolding human rights crisis in China. 

The hearing was titled “Authoritarianism with Chinese Characteristics: Political and Religious Human Rights Challenges in China” and was hosted by the Foreign Affairs’ Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia, Pacific and Nonproliferation.  

“Stop allowing China to take away freedom so totally in Xinjiang, in Tibet, increasingly in Hong Kong, and even here on your own soil,” said Ferkat Jawdat, a Uighur American who testified before the subcommittee. 

“Xinjiang security officials freely deliver threats, psychologically torture, and extortion, against your laws, to silence your own citizens here,” he told memebrs of Congress on Dec. 10.

“China is effectively taking the world hostage. Please do not let your voices be silenced. Begin to speak with meaningful actions,” he said in testimony that was published on the committee’s website.

Jawdat explained that while most of his family moved to the United States in 2011, his mother remained in China as she had been denied a passport. She has since faced the consequences of her son speaking out against the Chinese government. He said that he had been labeled a “terrorist,” and his other family members in China have been convicted of “bogus crimes” and sentenced to prison. 

His mother was sent to a re-education camp for Uihgurs. 

“On February 6th, 2018, my mother left me her last message on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp and other messaging platforms that it does not allow in China,” said Jawdat. “She told me she was going to the ‘school’ – the euphemism the whole world now knows China uses for its concentration camps. She then disappeared.”

His mother was eventually released from the camp in June 2019. 

Jawdat was critical of how President Donald Trump has handled the situation in China, and pleaded with the president to “stop allowing China to silence you.” He said he hopes that Trump would sign the “Uyghur Act of 2019” into law before the end of the year, and that Congress will pass legislation prohibiting companies in the United States from using products produced by forced labor in the province of Xinjiang. 

“Find a voice that speaks of freedom and justice, like Reagan’s, to the world to end tyrannies. Do not succumb with envy for their rich autocrats who have stolen billions from their own people and treat their suffering as badges somehow making them ‘great leaders.’ They are tyrants who rule for life, secured only by the wealth they steal,” he said. 

The United States, said Jawdat, should “Rededicate (...) our commitment to ‘Never Again!’ by taking action to convince China to empty its concentration camps and dismantle, rather than export, its high-tech mass surveillance police state.” Additionally, he feels as though the U.S. should fund organizations that will expose the human rights abuses happening in Xinjiang. 

“The Chinese government is spending billions every year to spread its propaganda around the world,” he said. 

“We should counter its propaganda by denying it such unequal access here and empower those who tell the truth with more resources and manpower to ensure facts pierce through China’s fiction,” Jawdat said.