The Vatican has been closely following the progress of astronomy, such as the NASA probe hovering over the celestial body farthest away from Earth, Ultima Thule, on New Year’s Day. On the eve of the Epiphany, La Croix looks at the Vatican Observatory, where the Jesuits scan the Earth and the stars:
Turning a control knob here, tightening a screw there, Fr. Gabriele Gionti makes the final adjustments as the cupola opens out onto a blue sky. The heavy 1930s telescope with which Pope Paul VI observed the moon a few hours before Apollo 11 landed there in July 1969 still works perfectly.
“In those days this was high technology,” says the astronomer, who is a specialist in quantum physics. Even a 30-centimeter telescope mounted on a tripod at the back of the room is more powerful now. “In any event, we are too low here, and the city of Rome gives off too much light at night for any research,” he explains.
Now he and 15 other Jesuits of the Vatican Observatory spend half their year at the other end of the world on the summit of Mount Graham in southeast Arizona.
Tucked away on this mountain at an altitude of 3,000 meters, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope was mounted in 1933 in association with the University of Tucson. The telescope, with its mirror almost two meters in diameter, was manufactured using a revolutionary procedure.
Calculating time has been crucial to popes
But why does the Vatican have an observatory?
“Because we do not have enough money for particle accelerators,” Fr. Paul Mueller, deputy director of the university, explains with a laugh before pointing out the close links between the papacy and astronomy.
Calculating time and, thus, observing the sky has for a long time been crucial to popes. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII tasked the Jesuits with studies meant to reform the calendar that would later bear his name. He installed them in the Wind Tower, above what is today the Vatican Museums. This first observatory was closed in 1821, then reopened by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.
The towers of the Vatican were then covered with observation domes open to the sky.
In the early 20th century, the Vatican Observatory, then one of the best, participated in the big sky-map project. It photographed the stars in the portion of the sky assigned to it, after which the astronomers — or, more precisely, nuns trained and selected “because they are more precise than men,” says Fr. Gionti — identified every star on the photos.
Emilia Ponzoni, Regina Colombo, Concetta Finardi and Luigia Panceri — the “computer sisters” — went on to pinpoint the positions of 256,000 stars.
In 1935, the observatory left the Vatican for Castel Gandolfo, close to Rome, where two domes were built on the roof of the apostolic palace. These were later abandoned for Arizona but remain a patrimony to which the Jesuits continue to be attached.
Each year, an international colloquium is held there. The most recent one, in September 2018, focused on meteorites, of which the observatory has a beautiful collection. Each year, young astronomers are also chosen for one-month internships.
“We select 25 candidatures out of the some 100 received, giving priority to developing countries,” says Fr. Mueller, who in this way wants to foster their networking work and build their awareness of more philosophical issues.
Baptizing an extraterrestrial?
“Doing science in this place is also discovering the marvels of creation in another way,” says Fr. Mueller, an American who assumes without difficulty his faith and his cutting-edge scientific work.
“I understand God better by observing the sky,” he says. “Science and faith have the same goal: I seek truth and, by observing nature, I discover another face of the revelation.”
Convinced that man is far from having perceived all the richness of creation, the astronomers of the Vatican even reflect on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
“If there’s another form of intelligent life in the universe, we’ll need to take it into account. That will be an opportunity to talk with them and learn from them,” says Fr. Mueller.
Would he go so far as to baptize an extraterrestrial? “Of course,” he says with a smile, “but only if it asks me!”
— Nicolas Senèze