Vatican astronomer finds joy in night sky


ST. MEINRAD — The concepts of science and faith are often pitted against each other.

But according to Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, it doesn’t have to be that way.


Consolmagno spoke to a packed theater at the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology on Tuesday night about his experiences as an astronomer and why religion and the study of the universe can — and should — coexist.

His main message to attendees was not only that the Catholic church supports astronomy, but also that true joy can be found in studying the night sky.

“And it’s in that joy that you find God,” he said in an interview after his lecture, adding that analyzing the stars and planets is “a heck of a lot of fun.”

Consolmagno explained that while Catholics operate in every imaginable field of science, the observatory he works in is the only scientific institution funded by the Vatican. He spent 15 years as an astronomer in universities living on NASA grants prior to working for the pope. He said that because the Vatican is not subject to the funding restraints universities have, the 11 researchers who work in the entity’s observatory can take on long-term projects that last decades.

Prior to taking over as director of the observatory, Consolmagno curated the Vatican’s collection of more than 1,100 meteorite samples. He measured their densities and heat capacities, and the collection has become an important source of extraterrestrial material for scientific colleagues around the world.

The samples allow astronomers to see deeper into the mysteries of creation, the Vatican Observatory’s website says, allowing the researchers to study creation “so that we may come to know more deeply the Heart of the Creator.”

A native of Detroit, Consolmagno grew up a self-described Sputnik kid. He developed a deep love for consuming and creating science fiction, which led him to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied earth and planetary science. He then moved on to a graduate program at the University of Arizona, and later a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard.

Feeling unfulfilled — “Why should I worry about the moons of Jupiter if people are starving,” he wondered — Consolmagno abandoned science as a career and joined the Peace Corps, where he became a teacher and led an astronomy club for students in Kenya.

Then, it finally hit him. He realized his affinity for the extraterrestrial bodies that surround us and sharing their connection to humans fed his soul, and it became his mission in life. He returned to the U.S. and was hired on as an assistant physics professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

He then became a Jesuit Brother, a move that offered him an education in theology and philosophy and allowed him to reflect and understand why he loved the stars and planets. He began working at the Vatican Observatory in 1993 and took over as the pope’s chief astronomer three years ago.

“I never thought of myself as an adventurous character,” Consolmagno said. “But I’ve had adventures in spite of it and I wouldn’t give up a single one of them. It’s been tremendous fun, and the one thing that has held steady through all of it has been my faith. Even when I felt like I was getting lost, I always had that rock to fall back on. It was the compass that always gave me a sense of direction, even as life was tossing me one way or another.”

Event attendee Ron Keller of Newburgh collects meteorites and has loved astronomy since he was a child. He and his wife, Cathy, are providence associates with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, and Ron said the lecture was a great way to educate the brothers as well as the public.

“It’s just fantastic being over here,” he said of the seminary and school of theology. “The environment is just amazing.”

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