Amid protests, Columbia University Catholic chaplain urges prayer, charity

Columbia University students and pro-Palestinian protesters march in front of Hamilton Hall in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., May 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Roselle Chen, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Recently, Columbia University in New York has become the epicenter of U.S. college protests and encampments demanding an end to U.S. support of Israel, now at war with Hamas following that group’s Oct. 7, 2023, attack on approximately 22 locations in Israel.

Some 1,200 were killed in Israel during the ambush, with Hamas members taking 253 Israeli hostages and — after several releases and rescues — some 130 remaining in captivity, at least 34 of whom are believed dead. Multiple accounts of sexual violence by Hamas members against Israeli females have been reported.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, more than 34,500 have been killed in Gaza in the ensuing war, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis has left the Middle East “on the verge of the abyss,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

On Columbia’s campus, a two-week standoff between protesters and the school culminated in protesters’ occupying and vandalizing an academic building April 30, with university president Minouche Shafik, backed by administrators, contacting law enforcement to clear the building after requests for voluntary disbandment went unheeded. Close to 110 were arrested, adding to the 100 detained following an April 18 effort to disband the encampment. University officials and law enforcement have stated that outside activists had led the building takeover.

OSV News asked Father Roger L. Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who was appointed Catholic chaplain of the university in 2022 by New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, how he has ministered amid the turbulence on Columbia’s campus.


OSV News: Have the protests impacted the day-to-day operations of your ministry? If so, how?

Father Landry: The protests have had a minor direct impact on what we do — (especially) in terms of evangelization efforts, meeting students on campus — but had a major indirect impact on basically all we do, because they impact every student we serve. More students have come to see me to try to process various interior reactions to what is happening as well as to deal with heightened anxiety over safety, questions about how to support friends who feel unsafe, concerns of their parents and friends, and how to live this chaotic time as a faithful disciple of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

OSV News: How have you and your team worked to help those you serve navigate the protests? Have you organized prayer vigils, listening sessions and the like?

Father Landry: We have prayed at every Mass for peace in the Middle East and, since the encampments began, peace on and around campus. The students have organized rosaries praying to Mary, the Queen of Peace, to help bring peace to campus and to strengthen all of us as genuine peace-makers. I’ve encouraged students to “encamp” before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and we’ve had two extended periods of adoration — in addition to the daily adoration — to implore Jesus’ guidance and the virtues necessary to rise to the moment.

OSV News: As a priest, how do you witness to Christ amid the protests, especially given the complex, fraught issues in play here?

Father Landry: The role of a Catholic chaplain is to try to bring Jesus and the light of the Gospel into every circumstance and to help students view things and walk in that light. I’ve emphasized that as Catholics, the most important things we do are pray and exercise charity, and I’ve sought to help students prioritize both as the primary way they respond both to campus controversies, to the situation in Ukraine, the situation in Gaza and everywhere. So I’ve tried to preach, exemplify and catalyze those priorities.

I’ve mentioned a lot that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, who, risen from the dead, never ceases to say to us “Peace be with you,” and to strengthen us to be not peace-wishers, but peace-makers and -builders. Like him who came to reconcile all things in himself and gather the lost sheep, we Catholics must be those who, by our words and actions, seek to bring harmony rather than division, to try to find the good in everyone and help that good triumph over temptation to hatred, division, unforgiveness and various other evils. That hard work of peace-building often starts with simple things like listening, or saying a heartfelt prayer, or a simple act of charity like giving someone a bottle of water.

OSV News: How does that witness specifically extend to the Muslim and Jewish members of the Columbia community? Are you reaching out to, or have you been approached by, students from those communities seeking support and guidance?

Father Landry: I’ve been in regular touch with Rabbi Yonah Hain of the Columbia Barnard Hillel to see how I can support him as a friend, because I know that his responsibilities at this time are far more challenging than my own. He’s been grateful for the support from me and from various prominent Catholics who have asked me to communicate to him their support as well. I’ve also had a couple of conversations with the Muslim Life Coordinator, Ebad Rahman, to see how he was doing and what Muslim students on campus were enduring as a result of Hamas’ actions.

I was very moved a week ago when Catholic student leaders asked how they could concretize their support for the Jewish and Muslim students on campus. They decided to purchase olive plants for each to give them as a sign of our prayerful support and solidarity. I was able to give them to Rabbi Hain and Imam Rahman earlier today (May 1).

OSV News: Where do you find Christ in these protests?

Father Landry: Frankly, I sense his absence in the protests, not his presence. He promised to be present wherever two or more gather in his name, but I haven’t seen any effort to gather in his name. There are many Christians who are opposed to the terrible loss of innocent life in Gaza, but who are similarly appalled by what Hamas did on Oct. 7 as well as by pro-Hamas and anti-Semitic chants and actions that Jesus’ and Mary’s fellow Jews have had to endure on campus. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve emphasized that as Catholics, we should never be defined simply by what we “protest” against but by what we fight for, and that’s for the dignity of every person made in God’s image. The division and hatred that have been part of these protests and demonstrations do not come from the true God.

OSV News: In addition to serving as the university’s Catholic chaplain, you are also the inaugural chaplain of the school’s Thomas Merton Institute for Catholic Life, named for the school’s famous Catholic alumnus. What do you think Merton, who converted while studying at Columbia and later became a Trappist monk and renowned writer, say about the protests?

Father Landry: Though Father Thomas Merton famously protested the Vietnam war and the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, he was really fighting for the conditions that lead to true peace. He was a monk and a priest, not a protestor for protest’s sake. I think he would certainly support the goal of peace in the Holy Land and decry the loss of so many innocent lives on Oct. 7 and in Gaza, but I think he would have grave problems with the anti-Semitic, Marxist and pro-Hamas elements of the protests on campus and around campus.


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