Vatican astronomer: science opens the door to dialogue

Br Guy Consolmagno speaks with CNA on Nov 22 2013 at the Vatican Observatory in Rome Credit Marco Gandolfo CNA CNA 112813 Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ speaks with CNA on Nov. 22, 2013 at the Vatican Observatory in Rome | Marco Gandolfo/CNA

A leading astronomer in the Vatican Observatory stated that the study of science provides a unique forum to discuss man's deep and existential questions about the origins and meaning of life.

"We in the astronomical community give the permission to everyone else to talk about their religious legs, and we discover it's not all that different," Br. Guy Consolmagno affirmed in a Nov. 22 interview with CNA.

Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ is an American research astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, which is an astronomical research and educational institution supported by the Holy See.

Having received a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in planetary science, the religious brother entered the Society of Jesus in 1989 and currently serves as curator of the Vatican Meteorite collection.

Recalling the time when he decided to leave his career in science in order to pursue his vocation to religious life, Br. Consolmagno stated that when "I came back as a Jesuit and all of my friends in the astronomy world came to me and said, 'You are a Jesuit?  That's so wonderful. Let me tell you about the church I belong to.'"

"I discovered so many of my friends were fellow church goers," he noted, adding that there were "many Catholics, many Protestants, many belonging to churches you've never heard of" with whom he began to discuss his faith.

Of those who share his same field of study, the brother stated that "we are really all in this field of astronomy for the same reasons."

"Astronomy is not going to make you rich, it is not going to get you powerful, astronomy is not going to get you girls, didn't work for me anyway, but astronomy does connect you up with that same moment of joy that I also experience in prayer."

Reflecting on his time teaching at a Kenyan university while in the Peace Corps before he entered the Jesuits, Br. Consolmagno recalled the amazement of local villagers when they looked through his telescope and saw the images of space.

"Everybody in the village would come out and take a look through the telescope and they'd go, 'Wow,'" he noted.

Highlighting how it was not his "cat" that wanted to look through the lens, the brother observed that this experience of wonder at creation speaks about man's constant search for God, because "this is something human beings do, this is something human beings ask about."

"They want to know what are those stars, why are there stars, why are we here, what is this all about, where did we come from," he explained.

"This is what makes us more than just well fed cows and if you starve somebody from being able to ask those questions, you are denying them their humanity."

Speaking of the link between science and religion, Br. Consolmagno observed that "it is an important part of being human to ask, who are we, how do we fit into this big universe, and it is an important part of being of human to recognize in this creation the hand of the one who made it."

"The astonishing thing to me about astronomy is not only that the universe makes sense and I can come up with equations and explain it," he continued, "but the way it makes sense is beautiful."

"God chose to create a universe that was at the same time logical and beautiful, one that I can enjoy with my brain and enjoy with my heart," he stressed, going on to say that this "tells me something about who God is and how He creates and how He's expecting me to relate to Him."

Addressing the fact that many are surprised at the existence of the Vatican Observatory, Br. Consolmagno stated that "that's part of the reason we exist; to surprise people."

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"To make people realize that the church not only supports science, literally… but we support and embrace and promote the use of both our hearts and our brains to come to know how the universe works."

The religious brother also spoke of the "special relationship" that the observatory has with Pope Francis, who is also a Jesuit, stating that "he understands the spirituality that drives us."

Highlighting how the director of the observatory is also from Argentina, Br. Consolmagno revealed that "they knew each other when they were both Jesuits together in Argentina, so there is a personal connection as well."

In a recent visit of the pontiff to the observatory, Br. Consolmagno noted that "it was clear" that the Pope "was delighted to be here and he was delighted to support the work that we were doing."

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