And then I wrote… in September our 2021 Calendars become available! What I suspect most people don’t notice is that on the back of every calendar is a little reflection that I write, based on a suggestion — often just a word — from Dr. Brendan Thomson, the volunteer who does all the legwork of putting these incredible calendars together. Over the next three weeks I though I would run the texts of these reflections from the calendars going back to 2016. If I can find earlier calendars I may add to this list!
And since these are meant to encourage people to join our guild and get a calendar, I am not putting them behind the usual firewall...
Why does the Vatican support an astronomical observatory? It’s a common question we get asked, and there are many simple answers.
The Observatory is a way of showing the Church’s support for science. It’s a way of demonstrating that, with a national observatory recognized by other nations, the Vatican City State is indeed its own independent nation. It’s even a way to apologize for the Galileo affair! But all those answers miss the deeper question: why does anyone support astronomy? Why does anyone dedicate his or her life to studying the stars and planets?
There’s no obvious way to turn this knowledge into profit (though astrologers tried to do that in the past, and companies are being formed now that may try to mine resources in space in the future). Astronomy in and of itself provides no obvious route to power or glory. So why does anyone do it?
Each of us has our own reasons, but I suspect the common thread in all astronomers ultimately goes back to the sense of wonder and mystery when we look at the night sky... and even more, the sense of joy that we receive when we suddenly understand some small part of this immense creation. In fact, of all the motivations, joy is the one that comes most powerfully to me. When we display the images of this calendar, we do it to remind ourselves of the joy we feel at contemplating the universe.
C. S. Lewis once described encountering God as being “surprised by joy”… and I believe that this joy of seeing celestial wonders is a sign of the Creator’s presence. That’s why I do astronomy.
That’s why we are all so eager to share this universe with everyone, especially through the work of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. We thank you for helping us share this joy; and we invite you to share it yourselves, among your friends and family.
A few years ago, a couple of cosmologists who styled themselves as atheists attempted to show that there was “no need for God” to start the universe, at the moment popularly known as the Big Bang. They proposed that a quantum fluctuation in the zero-energy vacuum field of the “nothingness” that presumably existed before the Bang occurred could have given rise our our existence.
Their argument, while certain having scientific merit, would have failed any Philosophy 101 class. After all, if one defines “God” as “that which started the Big Bang” and then you define quantum fluctuations as the cause of the Bang, then logically you haven’t disproved God; you’ve proved that God exists, as a quantum fluctuation – whatever they mean by that!
But more seriously, as the late Fr. Bill Stoeger explained in a chapter of our 2009 book, The Heavens Proclaim, the argument fails on a more fundamental level. “Creation out of nothing” is not the same as “creation in a vacuum” since even a vacuum is not “nothing”. As the cosmologists themselves concede, the primordial vacuum contains a zero-point energy; it also contains space, and time, and the laws of physics that allow it to fluctuate… or not.
Furthermore, God’s creation is not something that happened at one time in the distant past. Rather, since God is outside of time, God’s creation occurs continually at all times. From our point of view, every moment, every second, every nanosecond, God is creating. God maintains the existence of the Universe. The famous philosopher Wittgenstein pointed out that nothing can find meaning within itself; only a super-natural God, standing outside of nature, can cause nature to exist and give it meaning. God is not a being; God is Being.
But we Christians realize that God is more than the author of the Big Bang. God so loved this creation that He sent His only Son to become a part of it. In the Incarnation, as St. Athanasius wrote more than 1500 years ago, the universe became “cleansed and quickened”. Thus to study God’s creation, as we do at the Vatican Observatory, is an act of worship both to God who Created and to God who chose to become part of that creation.
Our science reveals a creation that is orderly, understandable, yet infinitely surprising. These features clearly echo the attributes of its Creator. But even more, as the images of these calendars reveal year by year, our science reveals a creation that is also remarkably beautiful.