February 17, 2017

Vatican Observatory director reflects on how astronomy can lead to worship

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, gives a presentation on astronomy and faith on Feb. 7 at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, gives a presentation on astronomy and faith on Feb. 7 at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

From the outside, it almost looks like a church.

It’s a rectangular building with tall walls and a large dome at one end of its roof.

On the inside, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno enters into worship of God on a regular basis, but not while kneeling before an altar at Mass.

The building houses the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mount Graham in southern Arizona, which is part of the Vatican Observatory, one of the world’s oldest astronomical research institutions.

Brother Guy, its director, spoke about the work of the observatory, the Church’s promotion of scientific research over the centuries and the intersection of faith and science in a Feb. 7 presentation titled “The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy as Worship” at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis.

The presentation featured many photos and video clips that illustrated the Church’s relationship with astronomy over the past several centuries.

(Related story: Faith and science need not be in conflict, says Jesuit brother and astronomer)

Brother Guy said that he gets a grace-filled “jolt of joy” in his scientific research.

“Prayer, to me, is coming into contact with God, and I recognize that that happens when I get that jolt of joy. I get that jolt of joy when I look through a telescope every now and then, when I make some interesting discovery on my computer every now and then.”

Brother Guy and his colleagues at the Vatican Observatory make scientific observations when they peer into the heavens and make calculations on computers. Questions of faith easily come up when they ponder the immensity of the universe which they study.

“There are two ways to react to this. You can say, ‘The universe is so big and I’m so small. How could God ever notice me?’ ” said Brother Guy, a native of Detroit. “Or you can say, ‘The universe is so big, and I’m so small. The fact that God does notice me … and does that for every human being and every intelligent creature, whoever they might be on whatever planet they might be on, just tells you how immensely big God actually is.’ And that’s amazing.”

Brother Guy, who earned a doctorate in planetary science at the University of Arizona and did post-graduate studies at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed in his presentation that several popes have thought it’s amazing, too.

“From no part of creation does there arise a more eloquent or stronger invitation to prayer and to adoration than looking at the sky,” said Pope Pius XI.

“Man ascends to God by climbing the ladder of the universe,” said Pope Pius XII.

“Scientific research can and should be a source of deep joy,” said Pope Francis.

Popes began supporting the work of astronomers some 450 years ago, Brother Guy explained, for practical and spiritual reasons: a more accurate calendar was needed in order to set the correct date for Easter.

He also addressed the fact that the Church has had at times a rocky relationship with scientists, most notably the 17th-century astronomer Galileo, who was convicted by a Church tribunal of “vehement suspicion of heresy.”

But while Brother Guy expressed regret that Church authorities treated Galileo unfairly, he noted that their motivation for taking action against him remains a mystery and that Galileo remained afterward a “devout Catholic.”

Galileo remains a fascinating person to many in today’s culture because of the way he is believed to show a conflict between faith and science. But Brother Guy said that the notion of this division only emerged in the late 19th century with the development of a “professional science class” and because the politicians in Europe and the U.S. sought to “dump on the Church.”

“Before then, most of the people doing science were clergymen,” Brother Guy said, noting that priests previously were those educated enough and with the free time to do scientific research. He described several of his Jesuit predecessors who were noted astronomers.

Jesuit Father Giovanni Riccioli, a 17th century Italian, produced the first accurate map of the Moon, using names for places on it that are still used today.

Jesuit Father Angelo Secchi, a 19th century Italian, set up telescopes on a roof of a church in Rome. From there, he became the first to identify channels on the surface of Mars, discovered the connection between the sun’s activity and magnetic fields on Earth, and launched the field of astrophysics by placing a prism in front of a telescope to identify what stars were made of.

Jesuit Father Joseph Lemaitre, a 20th century Belgian, established that the universe is expanding, and developed the theory that its creation began billions of years ago in what is popularly known as the “big bang.”

The Vatican Observatory, Brother Guy explained, was begun in the 1890s by Pope Leo XIII, who had telescopes set up in Vatican City. They were later moved to Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence outside Rome. Now they share a telescope in Arizona with the University of Arizona. Brother Guy spends about half of each year there and the other half in Rome.

He believes that God encourages him in his scientific research like his mother let him as a young child beat her at card games that she could have easily won.

“If the point of the game was to win the game, she’d always win,” Brother Guy said. “But that wasn’t the point of the game. The point of the game was that this was her way of telling me she loved me.

“When I do science, I’m playing a wonderful game with God, with the Creator, who has set up all of these fabulous puzzles. And every time that I get one, he goes, ‘Yeah! Wasn’t that cool? Let me show you the next one.’ ”

He ended his presentation by reflecting on a quote from early 20th-century English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, who wrote that pagan religions in the past saw nature as a solemn and sometimes stern mother, but that Christians view her “as a younger sister, a little dancing sister to be laughed at as well as loved.”

“It is that sense of joy and enjoyment that motivates us to do the science,” Brother Guy said, “and to recognize in the joy the presence of the One who is all joy.” †

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