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For heaven’s sake: Papal astronomers promote harmony of science, faith

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

01/21/2015

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The pope’s own astronomers are using the immensity of the heavens to draw people on earth closer together.

And they are using their love of the cosmos and Christ to demonstrate the church’s longtime support of science.

To commemorate this year’s International Year of Light, which celebrates the importance of light and its role in new technologies, Jesuit astronomers at the Vatican Observatory have launched a number of new initiatives aimed at increasing dialogue with Muslims, nonbelievers and Catholics, who may not know that their faith and science are not at odds.

Jesuit Father Jose Funes, an expert in galaxies and head of the Vatican Observatory, joined Iran’s Embassy to the Holy See to sponsor a Jan. 13-15 workshop studying The Role of Astronomy in Christianity and Islam.

Because it is the same moon, sun and stars for all people, space and astronomy are the perfect common ground for encounter and dialogue, Funes said at a news conference Jan. 9.

“It’s the same light for Christians, Muslims and non-believers,” he said.

“Light is extremely important in religion and culture, not just for science and technology,” he said, noting that the light from the sun and its reflection on the moon are the foundation for telling time, creating calendars and establishing the rhythms that guide prayer, day and night.

The workshop, which brought Muslim, Catholic and other scholars together, looked at some of the ways Christianity and Islam studied the heavens in the fields of science and faith.

Farid Ghassemlou of the department of the history of science at the Islamic Encyclopedia Foundation said, “Today more than ever, Islamic and Christian civilizations need a deep and complete understanding of one another.”

“We have a common past in the fields of science, mathematics, medicine and astronomy,” he said, speaking through an interpreter at the Jan. 9 news conference.

“The questions scientists of both religions were asking were the same,” Ghassemlou said.

“When the foundations are the same and when the questions are the same, we must ask, are their answers the same? We are eager to know that,” he said, adding he hoped the workshop would be the start of a long-term exploration of these questions and a discovery “of some beautiful answers.”

The Vatican astronomers are also reaching out in new ways to their own flock: priests and parish educators were invited to attend a first-ever Faith and Astronomy workshop Jan. 19-23 in Tucson, Arizona, where the papal astronomers conduct most of their research.

“Billed as four days of prayer, reflection and hands-on astronomy with the scientists of the Vatican Observatory, participants will hear talks from leading astronomers, do hands-on experiments, visit research sites in the Tucson area and share with each other the challenges and joys of teaching parishioners about the many ways the church has supported science and especially astronomy,” wrote Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a planetary scientist and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

The observatory foundation is also partnering with the European Southern Observatory to take stargazers on a nine-day tour in April to some of the world’s best observatories dotting the dark mountaintops of northern Chile.

But heading for high altitudes isn’t the only way Vatican astronomers are letting people “reach for the heavens;” they’ve also launched a new member-based web site called The Catholic Astronomer.

Members join the Vatican’s Sacred Space program to support the observatory’s work and have online access to exclusive news, images and conversations about astronomy, science and faith.

All of these latest initiatives are part of the papal astronomers’ ongoing efforts to dispel the myths and misconceptions about the church and science.

Many people, including Catholics, are unaware of the church’s real position concerning scientific discoveries. The theories of the Big Bang and evolution, which do not align with the biblical account of creation, and the church’s condemnation of Galileo Galilei in the 17th century for maintaining that the earth revolved around the sun are all seen
in the public eye as proof of faith’s antipathy to progress.

But Funes, Brother Consolmagno and the rest of the Vatican Observatory staff have spent decades appearing on speaking circuits, lecture series, news reports and publishing articles and books seeking to set the record straight.

Even though more than 20 years have passed since St. John Paul II formally acknowledged that the church erred when
it condemned Galileo, the fallout from that dramatic clash 400 years ago has yet to be fully repaired.

The Jesuit astronomers see they have a unique mission to better communicate that the church is not opposed to science, but embraces it as an important human endeavour to understand God’s creation and marvel at how he reveals himself through science.

Consolmagno has often summed it up by saying science works with human-made theories about how the world works, while religion — conversely — starts with divine truth about the whys of the world.

Funes has said the Bible is not a work of science: “It is a letter of love that God has written to his people, in a language that was used 2,000-3,000 years ago.”

The pope’s astronomers, who are men of science and faith, believe astronomy in particular can open people’s minds and hearts wider than before and bring them closer to God.

As their research takes them to the farthest frontiers in the universe — billions of light years away — they, like Jesus, Moses and Elijah who come back down from the mountain after encountering God, also come back “down to earth” to share the wonders and mysteries they witnessed above.

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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