Why does the starlit sky hold such a profound fascination for us? Perhaps because it is there that we encounter, commingled, the mystery of light and darkness -- two primal experiences connected with the beginning and end of human life. Perhaps it comes from seeing the order, both overt and occult, in the movements of the celestial spheres, with which we sense ourselves secretly involved. Perhaps it is because we feel so small before the starry universe: like a straw tossed into the 'great sea of being,' we feel ourselves confronted with destiny..."

So begins Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo in his introduction to the new book "The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican" (Our Sunday Visitor, $39.95), which celebrates the Catholic Church's centuries-old fascination with the cosmos and its extraordinary workings. During this International Year of Astronomy, when the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo Galilei, the following pages detail the Vatican's long commitment to studying the cosmos in order to better understand not only the moon and the stars that shine "with joy for their maker," (Baruch 3:34) but the universe, and our place in it.

The Stars Delight

Study of the universe's wonders brings us closer to its creator

Some may ask the question: "Why is the Vatican interested in astronomy?"
Initially it was for a practical reason, to reform the Julian calendar; later, at the establishment of the present form of the Vatican Observatory, in 1891, for an apologetic purpose, in the sense of defending the Catholic Church's positive regard for science; now, to join in doing good science in a way that is economically possible as part of the consequence that the incarnation of Christ applies to all human activity.

By the 1890s, a change had happened in the way science was done. Science used to be the work of noblemen, doctors and clergymen; who else had the free time and education? Indeed, the mundane work of a scientist -- gathering and sorting data -- is still called "clerical" work. It was work done by clerics: by the clergy. But in the 19th century, as science became more and more of a technical (and secular) job, a belief grew among many people that science and religion might be opposed. To counter that trend, Pope Leo XIII decided to establish a scientific institute that would show the world that the Church is not opposed to science, but, in fact, embraces and supports it.

The pope chose a couple of astronomers to carry on this work. Why astronomers? Going back to the ancient and medieval universities, you find that astronomy was one of the subjects a student was expected to know before studying theology and philosophy. A long history exists of astronomy as a wonderful connection point between the philosophical and scientific yearnings to understand who we are and where we come from.

 An astronomer pope

While several popes have had an interest in astronomy -- Pope Pius X, for example, had studied mathematics and astronomy and Pope Pius XII was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer -- a much earlier pope was one of the leading astronomers and scientists of his day.

Pope Sylvester II's scholarship was well ahead of his time, to such an extent that in popular lore he was thought to be a wizard and magician. Born Gerbert d'Aurillac in France in the middle of the 10th century, as a young man he entered the monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac in Spain, where he first came in contact with Arabic learning. He was especially fascinated by the Arabic scholars of mathematics and astronomy in Cordoba, then under the rule of the Arabs. He later taught astronomy at the Cathedral School of Rheims, where he also served briefly as bishop. Later he was a tutor to Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, and served as archbishop of Ravenna, before being elected pope in 999; he served until his death in 1003.

He is probably most famous for introducing to Europe the use of Arabic numbers and the abacus. In the realm of astronomy, he introduced to Europeans the use of the armillary sphere, an early device used to demonstrate the positions of the Sun and planets during the year.

To the moon

This year, in addition to the 400th anniversary of the telescope, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

Among the millions who were captivated by the news of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the face of the moon and even planting a U.S. flag was Pope Pius VI. Here is his message to the astronauts on July 21 (Rome time), 1969:

"Here, from his observatory at Castel Gandolfo, Pope Paul VI is speaking to you astronauts. Honor, greetings, and blessings to you, conquerors of the Moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams! Bring to her, with your living presence, the voice of the spirit, a hymn to God our Creator and our Father. We are close to you, with our good wishes and with our prayers. Together with the whole Catholic Church, Pope Paul VI greets you." 

Observatory's highlights

You may know that astronomers at the Vatican participated in the Gregorian reform of the calendar in 1582. But did you know of the crater on the moon that is named after a Vatican astronomer? From hours spent laboring with primitive equipment for a single exposure of a star to the installation of the sophisticated Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory) has long served as an instrument of dialogue between scientists and philosophers.

1888: Pope Leo XIII founds the Specola Vaticana to ensure official recognition for the Church in a field of international scientific research.

1889: The Vatican Observatory partners with the Paris Observatory astronomers to document the first photographically based atlas of the stars -- Carte du Ciel (Map of the Sky).

1906: Observatory and astrograph are moved to the Pontifical Villa at Castel Gandolfo.

1930: Father Johann Georg Hagen, observatory director from 1906 to 1930, dies. A crater on the moon has been named after him for his renowned astronomical research.

1944: When the populations of Albano and Castel Gandolfo are forced to leave their houses during World War II thousands of them take refuge in papal villas or the Papal Palace.

1955: Observatory completes the International Sky Mapping Program (Carte du Ciel).

1969: After captaining the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon, Frank Borman visits the observatory and presents a photograph he took of the earth to director Father Daniel O'Connell.

1987: Observatory accepts the invitation to set up a branch in Tucson, Ariz., which houses the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT)

What was the 'Star of Wonder'?

Question: Many people have tried to identify the star of the Magi, spoken of in the second chapter of Matthew's Gospel, with comet Halley (last seen from Earth in 1986). Is this a true identification?

Answer: We don't know what the star of the Magi was, though many people have attempted to identify it with a particular comet, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets. Halley's comet itself would have appeared in the year 12 B.C., which is probably too early to serve as an explanation for the star. Furthermore, comets were usually seen as unfavorable signs by the ancients, not consistent with something signifying the birth of a King.

For all we know, the description in Matthew's Gospel -- the only source we have for the Magi -- might be entirely symbolic. However, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in a homily on Epiphany, such symbols are important not in themselves but for the truths that they stand for. It is the birth of the Christ Child, not the star, that matters.

Is anybody out there?

Some people ask if the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence -- aliens -- would affect the faith of astronomers at the Vatican Observatory.

The first and most important fact we have to confront in the whole question of "extraterrestrial intelligence" is this: we don't know. Of all the planets we've found orbiting other stars, it's not clear if any of them are suitable places for life as we know it. On none of them have we ever found evidence that incontrovertibly proves life originated in some place other than just here on Earth. As far as we know for sure, we could be alone.

Father Ernan McMullin, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame with a background in physics, has discussed the possible impact on Christian theology of discovering extraterrestrials, and he concludes only that it would certainly inspire theologians to develop new ways of thinking about topics like original sin, the immortality of the soul and the meaning of Christ's redemptive act. But, as he points out, there is already voluminous literature, and hardly a consensus, on these points among theologians even today, without ETs! 

The Bible and the universe's origin

The Bible is not a science textbook. When it was written, the idea of "science textbooks" did not even exist. And to confuse it with a science book does the Bible no honor. Great works of literature, philosophy or theology are studied as intently today as when they were written, but no scientist actually learns science today from reading, say, Newton's original works. Science books go out of date only a few years after they are written. By contrast, the Bible is timeless.

The Bible teaches us that the physical universe was made by God, in an orderly fashion, who found that his creation was good, and who indeed so loved this world that he sent his only Son. This motivates us to study the physical universe, in order to become closer to its creator. The Bible tells us who made the universe; science tells us how he did it.