This column first ran in The Tablet in June, 2009
Anyone who has moved to a new home knows the odd, unsettling experience of seeing old furniture in a new, strange settings. Our knick-knacks define home to us; they are, echoing the practice of ancient Rome, our “household gods.” In moving a Jesuit community, the phrase takes on a powerful literal meaning when the tabernacle is moved into a new chapel.
June, 2009 was moving month for the Specola. We’d been talking among ourselves about shifting out of the Papal Palace and into the Papal Gardens for some time; still, it was hard to move our inertial mass. But the confluence of a new Pope who continued his active work and string of state visitors through the summer months at Castel Gandolfo, the security issues that everyone has become aware in the past decade, and our own growing needs finally brought the issue to a head.
It took three years to get here. Cardinal Lajolo, who ran the Vatican City in 2009 (the City covers our budget), made it clear that he wanted our new headquarters to be the kind of place the Vatican would be proud to show off, and he delivered on his word. An old convent in the papal gardens was completely rebuilt inside, and a new wing added on, to provide living and office quarters for a dozen Jesuit astronomers plus rooms for our biennial summer schools. Besides being a beautiful building in a glorious setting (there’s an enclosed garden with fruit trees out my window) it’s also a very practical place to work… air conditioned; internet-friendly; and, wonder of wonders, the same kind of electrical outlets in every room! (And we still have access to the old telescopes on the roof of the summer palace itself.)
The confusion of moving is as bad as you’d expect for an outfit that had squirreled away 75 years’ accumulated junk in the innumerable crannies of a 400 year old palace. Finding things again, now that we’ve moved, is oddly reminiscent of doing astronomy: we search for what we know must exist (cereal bowls/dark matter) but don’t know where to look.
I do miss our old view of Lake Albano (though I don’t miss the cold winter winds off that lake) and the cachet of living and working in the same building as the Pope, even if we rarely saw him. But it’s interesting; only after I knew we were going to be leaving them behind did I take the time to appreciate those things.
And it is more than the physical setting that is changing here. When I arrived 17 years earlier, I was the first new staff member in a dozen years; and in the next dozen years only one other Jesuit astronomer joined us. Likewise, the lay support staff had been together since the 1970s. But in the past three years, we had gained a new director; death and retirement have led to an almost complete turnover in our lay staff; and there are half a dozen young Jesuit astronomers getting ready to join us – one already arrived at the time of our move. From being the junior member of the staff I’m becoming one of the old-timers, almost overnight.
This past month also saw the publication of our book about the Vatican and astronomy, The Heavens Proclaim (another suggestion from Cardinal Lajolo). Looking through the photos and stories of our history has put this move into a broader perspective. Like us and our institutions, the universe has gotten older and grayer since it was founded; and I am glad. The universe is not unchanging; that would be boring. Just as the debris of a star’s death provides the elements of new planets, so it is only by getting old that we allow what’s new to come into being.
We've been in our new quarters for seven years now, about a third of my time at the Specola, and we'd never want to move back. Meanwhile, our old residence in the Papal Palace has been turned into a wonderful museum of the Popes. And we have even more young Jesuits in the pipeline; the most recent, Fr. Richard D'Souza SJ, joined our staff full time just last month.