The heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord
And the firmament the work of his hands.
On Monday, December 8, Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, S.J. of the Vatican Observatory spoke at Ave Maria University. Brother Guy, who was awarded the 2014 Carl Sagan Medal by the American Astronomical Society for his excellence in public communication in planetary science, spoke to the university community about the origin and history of the Vatican Observatory. His lecture, entitled “The Heavens Proclaim: A Brief History of the Vatican Observatory,” was sponsored by the Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Theology and Philosophy Departments at AMU.
Professors Thomas Smith (Biology) and Robert McTeigue, S.J. (Philosophy) gave the introductory remarks and extended a warm welcome to Brother Guy. Dr. Smith, who is Chair of the Biology Department, remarked that Brother Guy is an inspiration for the “integration between the Catholic religion and science,” and that he is “proof that science and theology can coexist… [and] coexist very well.”
Brother Guy opened his lecture by citing the Latin inscription on the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo:
DEUM CREATOREM VENITE ADOREMUS
Come, let us adore God the Creator
The adoration of God through the study of creation was a constant refrain throughout Brother Guy’s remarks. Studying the universe, “which God so loved that He sent His Son,” he said, is “an act of worship; it’s an act of getting closer to the Creator.”
The Vatican Observatory, Brother Guy explained, originated in the 1580s, when Gregory XIII accepted the instruction of the Council of Trent and hired astronomers to fix the Julian calendar. Christopher Clavius, a Jesuit, wrote a book explaining the reform and calculated the days on which feasts would fall. In 1582, the Vatican built the “Tower of the Winds” to demonstrate that the reformed calendar worked.
In 1887, Leo XIII celebrated his ordination jubilee by organizing an exhibit of scientific works by Italian clergy. In 1891, he officially established the Vatican Observatory. Brother Guy quoted Leo XIII’s words on this occasion:
“[T]hat everyone might see clearly that the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible devotion.”
Telescopes were built on the walls of the Vatican, priests were brought in to organize the Observatory, and the Sisters of the Child Mary were given the task of collecting and organizing the incoming data.
In the 1930s, the Observatory moved to Castel Gandolfo because Rome’s city lights were growing too bright. The Schmidt wide-angle telescope was installed in 1957, and in 1965, the first computer was installed. Pope Paul VI was able to speak with and observe the astronauts of Apollo 11 when they landed on the moon.
In 1981, because of increased light pollution, the Vatican Observatory moved to its current location in Tucson, Arizona. Soon after, the summer school was founded. It has been in operation every two years since 1986, and 85% of their students remain in the field of astronomy. “We have summer school students from around the world,” Brother Guy stated, “Every religion imaginable…but we all live under the same stars, and we are all affected by the same universe.”
“Many people ask why we have an observatory,” he continued. With his characteristic humor, Brother Guy replied: “Just studying the universe is great way to remind yourself that there are more important things in life than what’s for lunch.”
Brother Guy offered a final point, illustrated by a door that was installed during the 2011 remodeling of the Church of St. Thomas of Villanova, located just outside the papal palace. The door depicts Pope Benedict XVI protecting a woman, the Church, from things like “Relativism” and “Atheism” by wielding “Reason.” The pope is shown with the equation e=mc2 written across the front of his robes. Pope Benedict, Brother Guy explained, “was one of the great supporters of the idea that the Church is the defender of reason…and what is a better expression of reason than the science that we do?”
Quoting the words of Pius XII, Brother Guy concluded: “Man ascends to God by climbing the ladder of the universe.”
Brother Guy is the Coordinator for Public Relations at the Vatican Observatory. He has authored and co-authored six books: Turn Left at Orion (1989); Worlds Apart (1993); The Way to the Dwelling of Light (1998); Brother Astronomer(2000); God’s Mechanics (2007); and the recent Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? (2014). He is also editor of The Heavens Proclaim (2009). Brother Guy is curator of one of the world’s largest meteorite collections, which is housed in Castel Gandolfo. In 2000, asteroid 4597 Consolmagno was named after him.