ROME – As anti-Israel protests escalate on college and university campuses throughout the United States, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa of Jerusalem was critical of the demonstrations, saying academic institutions ought to be places of peaceful exchange.

“I confess that I struggle to understand it. Universities are places where cultural engagement, even heated, even harsh, must be open 360 degrees, where engagement with strong ideas that are completely different, must be expressed not with violence, not with boycotts, but knowing how to engage,” he said.

Speaking to journalists outside of Sant’Onofrio church in Rome, Pizzaballa said “the world is like this. The world is made of different opinions that must engage (one another), not excluding, but reasoning.”

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pizzaballa was in Rome to take possession of his titular church, Sant’Onofrio, the mother church of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, after being made a cardinal by Pope Francis last September.

Pizzaballa was forced to cut his trip to Rome short after last year’s consistory due to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and Israel’s retaliatory military offensive in Gaza, which morphed into a largescale war that has claimed thousands of civilian lives and threatens to expand into a broader, regional conflict.

He was supposed to take possession of his titular church on April 15; however, he was unable to, and the celebratory Mass for the occasion was rescheduled for May 1, which marks both the Catholic feast of Saint Joseph the Worker and Italian Labor Day.

His comments on university protests in the United States come amid an escalation in tensions in recent days as students and law enforcement have engaged in at times violent standoffs, resulting in a slew of student arrests.

For weeks, protests against the Israel-Hamas war have paralyzed dozens of colleges and universities throughout the United States, including prestigious schools such as Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Vanderbilt, Cornnell, Johns Hopkins, Virginia Tech, Brown, Princeton and Rutgers.

Students have led marches, staged sit-ins and pitched tents, and more recently, taken over campus buildings, displaying banners and calling for a divestment from any financial ties to Israel as the death toll in Gaza continues to mount.

Some Jewish students have complained that the protests have turned anti-Semitic and said they are afraid to set foot on their campuses, while fights have broken out between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups on campuses across the country.

Dozens of people were arrested Monday during protests at universities in Texas, Utah and Virginia, while at Columbia students were being suspended before storming the campus’s Hamilton Hall Tuesday and barricaded themselves in, sparking a rough standoff with police resulting in dozens more arrests.

As of Tuesday, the number of student arrests at campuses nationwide was around 1,000, with protesters demanding amnesty in negotiations as final commencement ceremonies approach.

Some universities have started holding classes online due to the disruption of attending them in person on campus.

In his comments to journalists, Pizzaballa said negotiations amid the Gaza war are ongoing, and “perhaps something will move, we hope so.”

“In any case, the situation remains very dramatic, heavy, and difficult,” he said, saying that beyond military issues, “which exist and are serious,” and the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza, “the deep furrow of hatred and anger that there is between the populations” is of particular concern.

The ferocity of these feelings, he said, “makes us understand that the time will be very long and that leadership capable of instilling trust with a great vision for the future is needed, knowing however that it will take a lot of time and a lot of patience because the wounds are still too deep.”

United States Ambassador to the Holy See Joseph Donnelly returns to his pew after receiving communion during a May 1, 2024, Mass with Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa at Sant’Onofrio church in Rome. (Credit: Elise Ann Allen/Crux.)

Tuesday’s Mass for Pizzaballa was attended by American ambassador to the Holy See Joseph Donnelly.

It was also attended by fellow Cardinals Leonardo Sandri, former prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Eastern Churches, and Fernando Filoni, current Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher and former prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples.

Pizzaballa in his homily referred to the ongoing war in Gaza, saying, “In the Holy Land we are experiencing one of the most difficult moments of our recent history, and probably not just recent history.”

“The impact of this war on the life of the Church has been huge, much more than any other war or any other conflict,” he said, voicing hope that “something will start to change.”

Prospects for future regional development are difficult to envision at the current moment, he said, saying, “right now we are in a situation in which the furrow between Israelis and Palestinians, between the various religious communities and entities, is deeper than it ever has been.”

“It’s a moment in which we are all waiting for something big, for something to change the course, the history of events. We wish the United States would solve the problem, we all wish peace negotiations would end with something big, important, in a way that marks history,” he said.

However, he lamented that instead, “we see that nothing is happening,” other than a handful of small efforts that can seem merely “cosmetic.”

Offering a spiritual take on the situation, Pizzaballa said the desire for “something new that solves the problem” is natural, but said, “This is not how the Kingdom of God grows.”

“That Kingdom of God that Jesus began to announce…grows in community, with the gestures of the community, calmly, a little bit at a time.”

God’s kingdom, he said, “is not the miracle that is done that changes the fate of the world,” but is rather “the seed thrown onto the ground that dies, and that little by little grows and bears fruit. It doesn’t make any noise, but it grows with an inexhaustible strength that comes from the heart, the love of God.”

As a Church, members in the Holy Land, Rome, and throughout the world, “must be capable of seeing the realities of this world in that pascal light of Christ, born and died out of love, and risen by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“Even in such a tragic and difficult moment as this, we are called to be the presence of the Kingdom of God that grows, even inside this war,” Pizzaballa said, saying peace is not simply “something that must be done,” but for Christians, “peace is a way of being in life, it’s a style.”

“It’s the ability and courage to believe in the other, whoever it is, and to know how to love, even when one doesn’t understand, and to seek at every cost paths of reconciliation,” he said.

Pizzaballa underlined the importance of uniting the concepts of truth, justice and forgiveness, saying, “truth and justice without forgiveness are recrimination, and forgiveness without truth and justice is justification for the evil that is done.”

He lauded the signs of God’s presence he said he sees in the Holy Land amid the war, including friendships that have endured and new friendships that have been forged, as well as the desire of many “to create spaces of encounter despite everything, especially in that land where encounter seems like something that’s far from our reality.”

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