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Lead Vatican astronomer: "Science is a wonderful way of getting to know God"

Nov 17, 2015

The Vatican Observatory
Credit Vatican Observatory / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Michigan native Brother Guy Consolmagno is one of 12 Vatican astronomers. He oversees the Vatican’s meteorite collection and was recently appointed as the director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope Francis.

A year ago, he became the first clergyman to win the Carl Sagan Medal, one of planetary science’s most distinguished honors. It’s given to the scientist who makes science accessible and understandable to the public.

Consolmagno grew up in Oakland County and says he was a science kid.

“I started kindergarten when Sputnik was orbited and finished up high school the year that people landed on the moon, so how could you not be science crazy?” he says.

He tells us his father worked for Chrysler but had a great interest in astronomy, and supported his son’s interest by teaching him about the stars.

Consolmagno also took advantage of weekend and summer science programs that eventually set him on the path to become a successful astronomer.

But he put science down for a time when he attended University of Detroit High School, because “they said all the smart kids do classics, Latin and Greek, so I did that.”

Feeling unsatisfied in his freshman year of college as a history major, Consolmagno was attracted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by stories his best friend had shared of weekend movies, pinball machines, tunnels under the school, and the world’s largest collection of science fiction.

“So I transferred there, mostly to read science fiction, and suddenly, all the science that I’d done as a kid came back and I said, this is the most exciting thing I could do. And it’s never stopped,” he says.

There was a time he considered becoming a Jesuit priest, but as a self-proclaimed nerd, Consolmagno admits he’s “not particularly good at the sort of things that priests would do with dealing with people; I’m much better dealing with rocks.”

But he learned that as a Jesuit brother, “where you get to live with the Jesuits, you take the same vows, you do the same work,” there are other ways to serve the faith than through priesthood.

“When I reached a crisis point in my career pushing age 40, it suddenly hit me. As a Jesuit brother I could do all the things I wanted to do and really do it not just for myself but for something bigger than myself,” he says.

Now, he will be directing a team of 11 other scientists, 10 of whom are Jesuit brothers or priests and one diocesan priest.

Consolmagno tells us working with Jesuit brother scientists is a lot like working with scientists outside the clergy or who are perhaps not religious at all, but there are a few big differences.

“We’re all the same nerds as the people who I was working with before I was a Jesuit. The difference is that we don’t have to worry about the three-year grant cycle, the six-year getting tenure, all of the pressures that are on life scientists to produce and produce now. And we’re not under the pressure to make a name for ourselves. We’re not doing this work to be famous, or to be rich, or to be on TV or even to be on the radio. We’re doing it because we love the science, and we’re given the time to spend … to make a project really work. That’s special.”

According to Consolmagno, the Vatican’s Observatory’s mission is the same one passed down by Pope Leo in 1891: to show the world that the church supports science.

He says that’s grown a bit less complicated these days, because “in the modern age, what I’ve discovered is that most of my fellow scientists are very comfortable with people who are religious, of every religion.”

Since the modern world doesn’t always require quite so much convincing, he tells us the Vatican Observatory also has an obligation those who are religious. He is adamant that religion and science don’t have to be at odds, and in fact come from common roots.

“The most important thing for us is to remind religious people that science is a wonderful way of getting to know God, and that we shouldn’t let the atheists steal it from us,” Consolmagno says. “As Christians, or Muslims or Jews for that matter, we only believe in one more God than Richard Dawkins. So we’re not that far apart.”

Consolmagno will be speaking in Southeast Michigan later this month, including a talk titled "Astronomy, God and the Search for Elegance" at the Cranbrook Institute of Science on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Information about the event can be found here.

Consolmagno will also be speaking at St. Francis Church in Ann Arbor on Sunday, Nov. 22, at 2:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. More information can be found here.