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Vatican stargazers look for divine inspiration

A long exposure at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in southeastern Arizona in 2014. Photo courtesy of Brother Guy Consolmagno

The Vatican Observatory sits atop Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome. Photo courtesy of Tijl Kindt

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (RNS) In a forgotten corner of the pope’s sprawling summer estate at Castel Gandolfo in the hills outside Rome, an unusual group of astronomers and cosmologists looks to the heavens for divine inspiration.

Twelve Catholic priests and brothers live, work and pray at the Vatican Observatory as they explore some of the universe’s biggest scientific questions, from the Big Bang theory to the structure of meteorites and stars.

“The observatory exists to show the world that the Catholic Church supports science,” says Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer from Detroit who is also the observatory’s director.

“We have two jobs — to do science and show the world. My job is to make sure the other scientists have the space and resources to do the work.”

The observatory, or “specola” as it is known in Italian, lies hidden inside 135 acres of lush gardens that are filled with gnarled oak trees and manicured flowerbeds.

These days tourists can tour the palace where, up until Pope Francis, the popes have traditionally spent their summer vacations. The vast gardens are also open to the public, and a tiny train takes visitors along shadowy paths past the ruins of another spectacular palace, where the Roman Emperor Domitian holidayed in great style in the first century A.D.

The moon is seen at night in 2007 at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo. Photo courtesy of the Vatican Observatory

But few realize there is a hive of scientific research underway at Castel Gandolfo that has more to do with the future than the past. The observatory recently hosted an international conference to discuss black holes, gravitational waves and other scientific questions.

Pope Francis personally greeted the 35 participants, who included the 1999 Nobel laureate in physics, Gerald ‘t Hooft from the Netherlands; British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose; and Renata Kallosh, a theoretical physicist from Stanford University.

“I encourage you to persevere in your search for truth,” the pope told the top-level researchers. “For we ought never to fear truth, nor become trapped in our own preconceived ideas, but welcome new scientific discoveries with an attitude of humility.”


READ: Pope embraces technology in unexpected TED talk


Consolmagno, who is a Jesuit like the pope, specializes in meteorites and asteroids and loves showing off specimens among the 1,000 in the observatory’s collection as well as a piece of the moon rock collected during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer and head of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. RNS photo by David Gibson

“People have been good at what meteorites are made of, but no one had done a survey of their physical properties,” he says. “We took it upon ourselves to be those people. It’s taken us 20 years.”

Consolmagno, who was awarded the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal for his research, co-wrote a book called “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” with fellow Jesuit the Rev. Paul Mueller, to show how faith and science can co-exist.

Consolmagno says science is critical in shaping our culture and he wants more people to understand how it works. He also says his research deepens his personal connection to God.

“If you believe that God created the universe, then knowing how the universe works, gets you closer to the Creator,” says Consolmagno.

“It always makes my faith stronger because it makes my relationship with the Creator much richer. When I go to pray, the God I encounter in prayer I compare with the God I encounter in creation. And see it is the same God.”

The observatory can trace its roots to the 16th century but it was formally established by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 to demonstrate the Vatican’s support for science. The observatory was originally situated inside the Vatican.

A new observatory was built in the gardens in 1939 and massive telescopes were installed to enable astronomers to observe the stars and planets.

A view of the entire sky at the Mount Graham International Observatory in southeastern Arizona. Photo courtesy of the Vatican Observatory

The telescopes are no longer used today due to the expansion of Rome’s city limits and the effect of urban “light pollution,” as city lights interfere with the researchers’ stargazing.

“In the 1980s it became impossible to use the telescope because the light pollution meant we were seeing fewer and fewer stars and more lights,” Consolmagno says.

These days the astronomers and cosmologists use a second Vatican observatory in Arizona for their stargazing and they are restoring the telescopes at Castel Gandolfo with the aim of inviting science enthusiasts on private tours of the building.

The Rev. Gabriele Gionti, a 49-year-old cosmologist, has been at the observatory since 2010. A Jesuit priest from southern Italy, he is looking into the moment when the Big Bang is believed to have occurred and the universe was created 13.8 billion years ago.

A long exposure at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in southeastern Arizona in 2014.  Photo courtesy of the Vatican Observatory

Like Consolmagno, Gionti does not see science and religion as mutually exclusive and says faith aids his scientific exploration. And he insists scientific research into how the universe began is not in conflict with Christian faith.

“We can’t take the Bible as a scientific book” because it was written by people so many centuries ago, he says. “We have to extract the message God has given. Creation is an act of God, an act of life.”

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS logo, John Templeton Foundation logo}

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.

26 Comments

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  • “We can’t take the Bible as a scientific book” because it was written by people so many centuries ago, he says.

    Quite a change from the time the Church punished Galileo. They have seen the light. It was a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaitre, who was one if the fathers of the Big Bang theory. Fundamentalists, remove the scales from your eyes and behold the truth. As Galileo said, the Bible teaches you how to go to heaven and science teaches how the heavens go.

  • “We can’t take the Bible as a scientific book” because it was written by people so many centuries ago, he says. “We have to extract the message God has given.” That’s a VERY wrong position.

    The Bible is not a physics textbook, but the text directly gives straight historical claims about the origins of the stars, planets, sun, moon, earth, plants, animals, and humans. And here’s the kicker:

    Neither cosmological nor biological evolution can even remotely fit the specific historical claims given in the Bible regarding the origin of any of those objects, no matter how old you believe the Earth is.

    So these guys are openly attacking your Bible as actual true history. They are NOT trying to defend the scientific method at all.

    Remember: If God created it all supernaturally (which is what the Bible says), then there’s nothing stopping God from using six literal 24-hour days, just as Jesus instantaneously created tons of brand new fish and bread from nothing at all, using one boy’s lunch to feed 5,000 people. So don’t believe the skeptics — believe the Bible instead.

  • If God created it all supernaturally……………. Yeah, but that’s not how it happened is it?

    Because science and the Bible don’t fit does not mean that science is wrong. It means there is a disagreement which, if you’re worried about it, needs resolution. The ways to resolve it are basically two. Blind faith or reasoned evaluation of evidence. We have differing opinions of the validity of the two methods.

    However, next time you are tempted to imagine your God as a producer of physical goods from nowhere consider why he can’t be bothered to slip the occasional gold bar into a “Proper Christian” church’s safe but expects the congregation to harm themselves and their families by doing what he could, you think, so easily do.

  • Your last paragraph raises questions. Is there some sort of specific situation you have in mind? I honestly don’t think I’ve heard you mention this issue before.

    Meanwhile, your phrase “reasoned evaluation of evidence” is a nuclear weapon all by itself, and we Christians effectively blow up people’s atheisms every day, just using those four words.

    After all, biblical Christianity (Psalms 19:1-4, Rom.1:20) openly dares YOU to test your current atheism and evolutionism against that powerful phrase, in light of all the biological and cosmological evidences discovered by modern science.

    In fairness, you are able to use those same four words to challenge me and my beliefs as well. But that’s what makes this discussion so interesting. God has provided the same evidences, the same scientific method, the same “let’s make sense of this” impulse, to all sides. So which way does the evidence REALLY point, hmm?

  • “If the Bible was meant to be a book of astronomy or other natural philosophy [i.e. science], wouldn’t there be much of that within it?” — Galileo

  • “If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.”
    — from “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” by St. Augustine of Hippo

  • Specific situation? – I know of a family where food was often absent on Thursday because the father tithed. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he had no holidays (vacations) but his devotion was such that he, and his family, suffered hunger for his beliefs. Millions of those who you claim your god created live lives of poverty and pain and he doesn’t appear to care.

    If your idea of a god were able to create material out of the immaterial he would have a moral duty to do so and prevent those you think he created, without bothering to ask their permission I might add, suffering.

    As to your blowing up people’s atheisms every day – if you can do so why don’t you do it here. And what on earth do you think you mean by “atheisms”? Spoiler – Atheism is a singular state – the absence of belief in god(s) – it is not possible to use it accurately as a plural.

    I question whether you have any real understanding of the “biological and cosmological evidences” – otherwise you would accept the evaluations provided by almost the entire body of those who are professionally competent within the relevant disciplines – that or win a Nobel prize.

    Science is a process which starts with questions and ends, usually, with the most likely explanation based on the available evidence. Religion starts with a dogma which all answers must meet and then tries to work backwards to bridge the gap to the question. Science doesn’t need miracles to get from A to Z, religion cannot get there without them.

    No-one has ever followed a scientific path that demonstrated either the existence of, or the need for, god(s). Though there are questions we don’t yet have rational answers to, it is not acceptable to assert as true a favourite irrational answer simply because we don’t currently have a rational one. “I don’t know” is the ground state of science – without it we wouldn’t need science, and without science we wouldn’t have medicines, transport, communication etc. etc. etc..

  • These guys want “Divine Guidence”? Don’t look to the stars. Look to Malachi.
    The Prophesies of Malachi are coming true, even as we sit here.

    In his prophesies, on The End Times, he laid out what would be the fate of the Catholic Church: He said that the precursor to those days, would be the coming of THE LAST POPE – The Beast of the Land.

    He said that we woeld know him by the fate of his previous two predecessors. One Pope will die in office, and his replacement will resign his appointment. The next Pope will be THE LAST.

    FRANCIS’s predecessor resigned his appointment. The Pope, before that one, died in office.

    The one we have now is a Follower of Marx and Lenin, instead of Mark and Luke.

    Even a blind man, with a blind seeing-eye dog, can see it.

    And, everybody knows it!

    I trust that’s “responsible” enough, for you guys.

  • I am comparing this with the evangelical fundamentalist cosmology and breathing the clean air and the 13.8+ billion year old god.

  • It is completely natural that people seek God. And the stars are a good place to look. The Vatican? Not so much.

  • A famous quotation, by a guy who believed God created everything instantly.

    Didn’t even stick with six literal 24-hour days of Genesis (which he should have just agreed with and stuck to, since that’s the text itself.)

    But no, Augustine went for just plain **everything instantly.** Which makes Augustine the ultimate young-earth creationist!

  • Psalm 19
    For the Music Director. A Psalm of David.

    1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the firmament shows His handiwork.

  • That would be a distortion -more of a big bang beginning and then “God has established fixed laws governing the production of kinds and qualities of beings, and bringing them out of concealment into full view.”

    So where (literally) are the four corners of the earth? or the ends of the world?

  • More prepping for the ‘Big Deception’ with the ‘False Profit’, Francis (Jorge) at the helm. And doesn’t this article make it sound so nice and friendly??

    “These days the astronomers and cosmologists use a second Vatican observatory in Arizona for their stargazing and they are restoring the telescopes at Castel Gandolfo with the aim of inviting science enthusiasts on private tours of the building.”

    No mention that the Arizona facility on Mt. Graham, the largest and most sophisticated ‘binocular’ telescope in the world, was affectionately dubbed by Vatican officials as, “Lucifer”.

    Jesus said: “Do not be deceived.” Everyone should head his warning!!!

  • Okay, so THAT’s the specific situation you had in mind. Thanks for saying what it was about.
    The New Testament clearly says that a man who doesn’t take care of his family is WORSE than an infidel, (1 Tim. 5:8), so obviously this father that you mentioned was flat-out disobeying God’s instructions, disobeying God. Hurting his own family.

    I do not know this family, but I do know that we men have ISSUES, even if we go to church every Sunday, give the money, and stay off the drugs & booze. For some guys (even well-off, “good” guys), those issues can be deep — and so is the resulting mess. This situation sounds like a real mess (although I know of kids who starved off of Non-Religious Daddies too!).

    But God is the Person trying to get the family to survive the mess. God is NOT the one who brought the mess. Sometimes, the kids turn to Jesus all by themselves and get saved, and finally the daddy realizes all the pain he caused and asks forgiveness — maybe he even starts taking the Bible seriously.

    But sometimes, Daddy messes up the kids’ spirits for a long time. Very long time, beyond human aid. But God keeps on fighting for each person’s life.

  • No, not a distortion, but a fact. There is seriously no doubt that:

    (1) Augustine was a young-earth creationist, and
    (2) he saw the Genesis Creation as happening instantly and supernaturally.

    Proofs (emphases mine):

    (1) “Unbelievers are also deceived by false documents which ascribe to history many thousand years, although we can calculate from Sacred Scripture that not 6,000 years have passed since the creation of man.” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Vol. 1, Book 4, Chapter 33)

    (2) “Perhaps we ought not to think of these creatures at the moment they were produced as subject to the processes of nature which we now observe in them, but rather as under the wonderful and unutterable power of the Wisdom of God, which reaches from end to end mightily and governs all graciously.

    For this power of Divine Wisdom does not reach by stages or arrive by steps. It was just as easy, then, for God to create everything as it is for Wisdom to exercise this mighty power. For through Wisdom all things were made, and the motion we now see in creatures, measured by the lapse of time, as each one fulfills its proper function, comes to creatures from those causal reasons implanted in them, which God scattered as seeds at the moment of creation when He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created.

    Creation, therefore, did not take place slowly in order that a slow development might be implanted in those things that are slow by nature; nor were the ages established at plodding pace at which they now pass. Time brings about the development of these creatures according to the laws of their numbers, but there was no passage of time when they received these laws at creation.” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Vol. 1, Book 4, Chapter 33)

  • LUCIFER is an acronym:

    “Large Binocular Telescope
    Near-infrared Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research,”

    The acronym does not originate with the Vatican but comes from the humor of the astronomers. This telescope is not the VATT telescope operated by the Vatican, though it is adjacent to it and they work together.

    You are the one that has been deceived. Wise up and double check your sources.

  • Galileo quoted extensively from the Literal Meaning of Genesis using Augustine’s words, arguments, writings to validate science that was contrary to Scripture. As per St. Reformed’s quote above for example.. He also said that human language was limited in explaining things. He also understood the primary purpose of Scripture to be spiritual and, based on what he wrote, as in situations noted in the initial quote, then the meaning of Scripture was not always literal – that knowledge and Scripture should not be in opposition to each other.

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