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The Vatican Space Observatory wants to see the stars and faith align: NPR

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The Vatican Space Observatory wants to see the stars and faith align: NPR

A view of the telescope domes on the roof of the Vatican Observatory, in the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, in 2015.

Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images


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Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images

A view of the telescope domes on the roof of the Vatican Observatory, in the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, in 2015.

Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy – At a time of growing distrust of some new scientific discoveries, the only Vatican institution conducting scientific research recently launched a campaign to promote dialogue between faith and science.

It is the Vatican Observatory, located on the grounds of the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, a medieval town in the Alban Hills 15 miles southeast of Rome.

Director, Brother Guy Consolmagno, offers this reporter a guided tour of the grounds. We drive down a cypress-lined road, admiring majestic gardens and olive groves nestled near the remains of a palace of the Roman Emperor Domitian, before reaching a field with agricultural workers and animals.

“This is the end of the papal farm, so you can see the cows where the papal milk comes from,” says Consolmagno as he points to the working farm that provides the Pope in the Vatican with vegetables and dairy products.

(Pope Francis, known for his frugality and his habit of not taking vacations, decided not to use the papal summer villa, which he considers too luxurious. But he ordered that the estate be turned into a museum open to the public.)

For most of its history, the Catholic Church rejected scientific findings that were in conflict with its doctrine. During the Inquisition, he even persecuted scientists like Galileo Galilei.

In the Middle Ages, it became clear that the Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar and established in 46 BC. C., had accumulated numerous errors. But it was not until 1582 that the The Vatican Observatory is born with the reform of the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII) which, based on the observation of the stars, established fixed dates for religious festivals.

Consolmagno strives to refute the unscientific image of the Catholic Church. Cite the Italian priest of the 19th century. Angelo secchi as pioneer of astronomy and 20th century Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, known as “father of the Big Bang theory”, which holds that the universe began with a cataclysmic explosion of a small primitive superatom.

Astronomical textbooks in Latin are on display at the Vatican Observatory.

Sylvia Poggioli / NPR


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Sylvia Poggioli / NPR

Astronomical textbooks in Latin are on display at the Vatican Observatory.

Sylvia Poggioli / NPR

Run by Jesuits, the Observatory moved to this bucolic setting in the 1930s, when light pollution in Rome obstructed sky observation.

A domed building in the Papal Gardens houses a huge telescope It dates from 1891. It is called Carte du Ciel – map of the sky – and it is located under a curved roof that slides open. Consolmagno says: “It was one of approximately 18 identical telescopes that were installed around the world to photograph the sky, and each national observatory was given its own piece of sky to photograph.” He adds that it was “one of the first international astronomy projects.”

Consolmagno, a native of Detroit, studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, volunteered for the Peace Corps in Africa and taught physics before becoming a Jesuit brother at age 40. He has been at the Observatory for three decades. His passion for astronomy began with a childhood love for science fiction.

“I love the kind of science fiction that gives you that sense of wonder, that reminds you at the end of the day why we dream of being able to go into space,” says Consolmagno.

A passionate Star Wars fan, proudly tells this reporter, “even Obi-Wan Kenobi came to visit” the Observatory, noting the signature of actor Alec Guinness, who played the role in the original film trilogy, in a 1958 guestbook .

The best scientists teach at the Observatory’s summer school. And scientists and space industry leaders have attended a United Nations-sponsored conference on the ethics and peaceful use of outer space. Cooperates with NASA on various space missions and operates a modern telescope in association with the University of Arizona.

Left: A guest book signed by actor Alec Guinness in 1958. Right: A photo of a decades-old prelate leaning back to view the telescope.

Sylvia Poggioli / NPR


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Sylvia Poggioli / NPR

Left: A guest book signed by actor Alec Guinness in 1958. Right: A photo of a decades-old prelate leaning back to view the telescope.

Sylvia Poggioli / NPR

“But where we still have to work is with the rest of the world,” says the director of the Observatory, “the people in the pews, especially today. There are too many people in the pews who think that there is a choice between science and faith.” . . “

To reach those people, the Observatory recently launched a new website other podcasts exploring questions like meteorites hitting the earth or how to live on the moon.

And online Store sells merchandise: hoodies, hats, handbags and Milky Way posters.

In just a few months, says the director, website visitors have doubled.

As for how the culture wars between faith and science can be resolved, Consolmagno says that the most important thing is that he wears a necklace: he is a devoutly religious person who also considers himself an “orthodox scientist.” “That fact alone breaks stereotypes,” he says.

Another American at the Observatory breaking stereotypes is Brother Robert Macke, curator of the collection of meteorites: rocks formed in the early days of the solar system.

Holding a dark rock a few inches long, it says it formed 4.5 billion years ago, providing clues to how the solar system formed.

“To understand the natural world,” he says, “you have to study the natural world. You can’t just close your eyes and ignore it or pretend it’s different than it is.” You have to study it and you have to come to appreciate it. “

Consolmagno, who was asked how studying the stars interacts with his faith, says astronomy does not provide answers to theological questions and scripture does not explain science. “But astronomy is the place where I interact with the Creator of the universe, where God prepares the puzzles and we have a lot of fun solving them together,” says the director.

And he believes that the recent dark period of the pandemic has weakened the arguments of those who are skeptical of science.

“Because people can see science in action, science doesn’t have all the answers,” he says. “And yet science is still with all its errors and with all its stumbles, it is better than no science.”

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