And then I wrote… as I mentioned the last two weeks, this article is adapted from a piece published in Italian in Civiltà Cattolica, which they ran in 2012. But I wrote it in English andI’m not sure the original English ever ran anywhere… because it runs to nearly 6,000 words, I have split it into three parts. The first two parst ran the last two weeks; here’s the finale, Part III, and I’ve decided not to hide it behind a firewall this time..
In order to do science, you must believe that science is worth doing. Which goes to the heart of the question: why do we do it? Do we study the stars to gain power or money or security by predicting the future, the way the astrologers try to do? To improve the timing of growing crops, the way the calendar-makers of the ancient world did? But our calendars don’t need constant revision; and our science has shown that astrology doesn’t work, just as our scriptures have insisted it was an abuse, a denial of free will and the power of God. So why do we do astronomy?
The original work of astronomers for the Vatican had a very practical bent. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII organized a commission to reform the calendar, and had the Jesuit mathematician Christoph Clavius explain it to the public. But, with that work done, Jesuit astronomers continued charting the heavens, observing planets and comets and building the first reflecting telescope.
A Pontifical Observatory at the Roman College was formally established in 1774; it had the task of keeping track of the weather, recording earthquakes, and marking the passage of the Sun across the meridian every day: they’d drop a ball; at that signal, a cannon would fire from a nearby fort, signalling noontime for all Rome. But they did more than that. Pope Pius VII observed a near-total solar eclipse at the Observatory in 1804. Fr. Etienne Dumouchel SJ and Francesco de Vico SJ were the first to recover Comet Halley in 1835. Fr. Angelo Secchi SJ in the 1860s developed a classification scheme for the spectra of stars, eventually classifying more than 4000 stars into different populations by their spectral features.
When Pope Leo XIII in 1891 established the modern version of the Vatican Observatory, it was to show the world how the Church supported science; but he was also building on centuries of astronomical research done for nothing more than the joy of glorying in God’s creation.
All astronomers, even the few of us who make a living at it, are amateurs… which, as we all know, means that we do it for love. And that is a radical assertion. Not every religion would see studying the physical universe as worthy of love. After all, if your goal in life is to reach Nirvana through meditation, then studying this merely physical universe, this corrupt reality, is a trap and delusion and a sin. For most of human history, the mathematics, the ethics, the poetry of the Eastern cultures has far surpassed anything in the West. But where were their James Watts or Thomas Edisons, their Mayo Clinics and MIT’s?
It’s only if you believe that the universe was made, in an orderly way, by a beneficent God who looked at it and said it was good; even more, if you believe in a God who so loved the world that He sent it His only Son — not, loved humanity, or goodness, or spiritual things, but loved the world — then you’ll believe that studying this world is a good thing, because it’s a way of becoming intimate with its Maker.
In On the Incarnation, written in 300 AD, St. Athanasius explicitly stated that creation is Good, and that it is a path to lead us to God:
“If a man looks up to heaven, he sees there His ordering... again, if a man has been immersed in the element of water and thinks that it is God — as indeed the Egyptians do worship water — he may see its very nature changed by Him and learn that the Lord is Creator of all. And if a man has gone down even to Hades, still he may see the fact of Christ’s resurrection. For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit. Thus Man, enclosed on every side by the works of creation, everywhere — in heaven, in Hades, in men and on the earth — beholds the unfolded Godhead of the Word.”
Athanasius argues against those who assume creation is evil. And he brings forth the insight that by participating personally in His creation through the Incarnation, God has elevated the status of nature, while still being separate from nature. We find God in the element of water, for instance, not because water is God but because it is a creation, and thus an expression, of God.
By implication, Athanasius suggests that the honor and duty of one who knows and loves God is to know and love His creation. In other words, God calls us to be scientists.
And that is why the Vatican supports an astronomical observatory. But why do we individual Jesuits become astronomers?
Let’s become observers ourselves, observers of ourselves. If you were to observe the observers, what would you see going on, day by day, at this Vatican Observatory?
You’d see is a week spent in near silence, awake all night on a cold lonely mountaintop under a starlit sky, quietly moving a telescope from star field to star field, typing a few commands into a computer, waiting for the starlight to be gathered into a frozen chip of silicon.
You’d see a noisy meeting room in a convention hotel filled with a thousand other scientists, old colleagues known from graduate school days and new grad students meeting each other for the first time. Amid the noise you hear friends chatting about new discoveries... worried about their next grant, their next job… overflowing with news of marriages, births, divorces since the last meeting… terrified because they’re about to try to jam a year’s worth of work into a ten minute presentation before 500 ultra-critical colleagues. And then one of them asks if he can talk to you, in private, for just a few minutes.
You’d see someone standing in an auditorium before two hundred high school students, their minds scattered in two hundred different directions, and slowly enticing them with the glorious colors of galaxies and nebulae into a deeper contemplation of Self and Creation and Creator.
You’d see a computer screen displaying not beautiful color images, but stars as random dots of black and white amidst every flaw on the detector chip, every speck of dust on the filter, the shadow of the moth that happened to fly into the telescope while you were taking the image. From this you must extract the brightness of one particular dot by counting the number of times a photon knocked an electron from your detector chip; and you know the relentless mathematical law that says the value you arrive at will be no better, statistically, than the square root of that number of hits. You hope that your count doesn’t also include the light from some faint distant galaxy nearby. And then you realize that the faint, anonymous, distant galaxy that’s getting in the way of your data is a collection of a hundred billion stars; each star likely surrounded by planets; and even if life is a one in a million chance, that would still mean a hundred thousand places in that little smudge where there could be alien astronomers looking back at you, muttering about that distant smudge of the Milky Way getting in the way of their observations.
You’d see twenty five brilliant young graduate students from around the world, meeting in the Pope’s summer home south of Rome for a month to learn more about astronomy… and to make those friendships that will be renewed at scientific meetings for the rest of their lives.
You’d see someone looking through a microscope at a thin slice of a meteorite and wondering what part of the asteroid belt could have provided those shocks, melted those minerals.
You’d see someone explaining once again to the hundredth reporter this year, why the Church supports an observatory; why there is nothing new to say about aliens or the Star of Bethlehem or the DaVinci Code; why the Galileo story is a whole lot more complicated than the story everybody knows – and yet, the truth about Galileo is no less embarrassing for the Church... an embarrassment that you feel personally because you love both your science and your Church.
You’d see another long trip through Roman traffic from Castel Gandolfo into the Vatican, past busy nuns and suited functionaries and saluting Swiss Guards, to speak to an official (in a language neither of you calls his mother tongue) about a visa, a project, an accounting issue.
You’d see someone stepping outside his room late at night, to just look up at the stars.
Even before Galileo ground his first lens, Jesuits were working in astronomy. Fr. Christoph Clavius SJ helped Pope Gregory XIII reform the calendar in 1582, and then wrote the book to explain that reform to the rest of the world. He also wrote a letter of recommendation for a young Galileo, when he was looking for a teaching job; and late in his life he got to look through Galileo’s telescope and see the moons of Jupiter for himself. Other Jesuits, at the Roman College and elsewhere, devised the first reflecting telescopes; mapped the Moon; convinced the Vatican to remove Copernicus from the Index; observed the transits of Venus that let astronomers finally measure the scale of the solar system. From the roof of St. Ignatius Church in Rome, Fr. Angelo Secchi discovered dark markings on Mars that he called canali (which were real, and quite different from the illusional “canals” that later astronomers thought they saw) and he first sorted the stars by their spectral colors.
All of these forebears did their work too in meetings and classrooms and alone at the telescope. They had moments of private spiritual conversation; Fr. Johann Hagen, director of the Vatican Observatory in the early 1900s, was the spiritual director of Blessed Elizabeth Haesselblad, the Swedish/American convert who founded the Swedish Brigittine order. They attended at weddings and baptisms and funerals for their colleagues, including many who might otherwise have felt uncomfortable around clergy.
And so our work continues, both at the telescope and in our new offices in the Papal gardens outside of Rome; and the Church continues to actively support our science.
The Vatican supports an Observatory, and asks the Jesuits to staff it with astronomers, in order to show the world in a visible way that it does not fear science but rather embraces it. This follows the long tradition of seeing knowledge of the created world as a path to the Creator.
And the reasons why we are astronomers are as old as the stars themselves, expressed in poetry since poets first wrote. The prophet Baruch spoke of “the stars at their posts [who] shine and rejoice. When He calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker.” Dante ended his Divine Comedy by referring to the “Love that moves the heavens and the other stars.” Ignatius wrote that “his greatest consolation came from the contemplation of the heavens and the stars, which he would gaze at long and often, because from them there was born in him the strongest impulse to serve Our Saviour.”
Call it consolation; call it joy; call it love. It is in season in every year. It is the study of the universe, the “all things” where one finds God. It is the work of the Vatican Observatory. It is the work of every observatory. We call it astronomy.