Jesuit astronomer: Science helps us know God better

| April 11, 2012 | 1 Comment


U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer with the Vatican Observatory, is pictured with the observatory’s meteorite collection in this file photo. CNS photo / Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

Growing up in Detroit in the late 1950s when the space race was heating up between the United States and Soviet Union, Guy Consolmagno dreamed about someday becoming a scientist.

It was the Catholic school nuns who fed the imagination of young Guy, who would sometimes explore the scrap heaps behind the new housing developments being built in his neighborhood to see what he could discover. In school, in between reading and math lessons, the teachers nurtured his curiosity about science and space.

“The nuns taught me that there existed a Vatican Observatory,” he said. “I remember hearing about that as a kid and getting a little thrill about how cool that was, never dreaming that someday I would be a part of it.”

Today, he is known as Brother Guy, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory with an interest in a scrap heap of a different sort — the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that is the source of many of the meteorites he studies. He is curator of the Vatican’s meteorite collection, one of the largest in the world.

I interviewed Brother Guy last month in Rome, where I was covering our regional bishops’ “ad limina” visit. He just finished getting extra pages inserted into his much-traveled passport and was about to lead a tour of the Vatican’s Tower of the Winds, an early observatory site.

I questioned him about the church’s views on science because some people still point to the church’s treatment of Galileo some 400 years ago as “proof” that faith and science are incompatible.

I also was curious about Brother Guy’s personal journey that led him first to astronomy and then later to religious life.

Getting to know God

Brother Guy bristles at perceptions that the church is “anti-science,” and he points to the Vatican Observatory, with its roots dating back to the 16th century, as proof to the contrary.

“The reason the observatory exists is to show the world the church supports science — not just that it isn’t anti-science, but it actively supports it, gives money to it, gives space to it.”

Despite the hostility to religion displayed by some outspoken members of the scientific community, Brother Guy said the church’s support for ethical science is “something that we should not let the atheists steal from us.”

But, in many cases, it’s not his scientific peers in the secular world who worry him the most. It’s people in the pews — some of whom have fallen into the fundamentalist trap that pits science against faith.

“When I became a Jesuit, I discovered that so many of my fellow astronomers were church-goers,” he said. “We never talked about it until I put the collar on and they felt they had permission to talk about it.

“The people I think it’s really important to reach are our fellow Catholics and other Christians to remind them that good science is a way of getting to know God,” he added. “God created the universe. God said the universe is good. God is expressing who he is to us [in part] through the physical universe. So knowing how the universe works gives us a sense of God’s personality, and it’s a way of getting to know God better.”

The Vatican astronomers’ work touches on a variety of fields — ranging from Brother Guy’s studies of the physical properties of meteorites to research involving string theory, quantum gravity, the Big Bang and the evolution of galaxies. Research is conducted in two locations: the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome and a partner research facility in Arizona.

And their ability to pursue scientific investigations of their own choosing gives them a certain freedom many of their secular colleagues don’t have.

Brother Guy said: “The idea that at the Vatican we have the resources to do science and that we are given utter, complete freedom to do the science we think is interesting — not, for example, what somebody at NASA headquarters thinks is interesting — means that we can explore new areas in astronomy that may take 10 or 20 years to come to fruition and demonstrate to our colleagues what ideas are worth following and what ideas aren’t.”

From Detroit to Rome

The journey that led Brother Guy to the Vatican Observatory was a roundabout one.

He grew up in Detroit, where he attended University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Raised in a strong Catholic household, he entertained the idea of joining the Jesuits as he prepared for university studies.

But the time wasn’t right.

“I realized after prayer . . . that I did not have the calling to be a priest. I didn’t have the temperament for it. What I had the temperament for was to be a nerd,” said Brother Guy, who takes obvious pride in the moniker.

He ended up going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he said he had “a wonderful time thinking about planets, reading science fiction . . . and falling in love with the science.” He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in planetary science and then a doctorate from the University of Arizona.

Brother Guy then taught for a while at the university level, until he heard the call to do something else — not a call to religious life (not yet, anyway), but a call at age 30 to join the Peace Corps and serve in Kenya.

“I loved being in Africa,” he said. “And I loved teaching the science I loved — the physics and the astronomy — but doing it while I was standing for something bigger than just myself and my own career, as someone representing America.”

When he returned to the United States, he took a teaching job at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

“I loved it there, and I loved being a professor,” he said. “But I missed that standing for something bigger.”

He had been dating someone, but the relationship fell apart. Almost 40 years old, he questioned what he should be doing with his life, and that’s when he started asking a question he first entertained two decades earlier: Am I being called to a religious vocation?

This time the answer was yes, but as a brother and not a priest.

“It was the brother part that made me really believe it came from outside myself because I would never have thought of that on my own,” Brother Guy said. “To this day, I’m not sure I can put my finger on why I have the call to be a brother and not a priest. But I am more certain of that than just about anything — the call is so strong in me and it’s been great. This was where I was meant to be.”

Brother Guy began working at the Vatican Observatory in 1993, where he has been doing science while “standing for something bigger” ever since.

Lending a helping hand

The observatory and its other Jesuit astronomers also stand for something bigger — something that goes beyond their specific research projects. They are living signs that it is possible to be both a serious scientist and a faithful member of the church.

Brother Guy said the church needs more people to step forward and deliver a similar message.

“What I would really hope is that anybody who is a scientist, an engineer [or] a techie would talk about their work or interests with their parishioners — maybe start an astronomy club for the youth group, do a project to learn about local trees or do a gardening project.”

As our warmer-than-average spring continues, families might also consider learning more about the nighttime sky and taking a stroll to view the stars, constellations and planets overhead.

“There’s something wonderful and spiritual about leaving whatever it is you are doing, turning off the TV and going outside to look at the stars for 20 minutes,” Brother Guy said. “Getting to know better the universe God created, it’s an act of prayer.”

Pass on the wonder
Have you or has your parish helped youth get closer to God through science? Share your story or idea below in comments.

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