Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, didn’t always know he was going to be an astronomer and a vowed member of a religious order. Coming out of high school in the early 1970s, he thought he might become a journalist.
“I worked on a small paper in Michigan and discovered that I was really terrible at being a journalist,” he said. “I hated calling up total strangers and asking them questions that might be embarrassing.”
He was a huge science fiction fan, so he arranged a college transfer after his freshman year at Boston College to MIT, which has the world’s largest collection of books in the genre. He saw the Earth and Planetary Sciences department, which sounded like sci-fi. But it was mostly geology.
“And I think, ‘Geology, what could be more boring than rocks?’ Until I discovered that there are rocks that fall out of the sky, from outer space, called meteorites. You can hold pieces of other planets in your hands,” he said. “I’ve been fabulously in love with that.”
When we spoke last year, I asked Brother Guy about his twin vocations as scientist and member of the Jesuits, the largest order of Catholic priests and brothers in the world. Both science and faith fill Brother Guy with wonder and awe, which radiate off him when he talks about the universe — even 50 years into his intellectual and spiritual journey into the cosmos. Here’s part of the conversation we shared (edited for length and clarity).
Mike: I know sometimes people are surprised to hear the Vatican has an observatory at all.
Brother Guy: Well, that’s the reason we exist, to surprise people.
How did you get to the Jesuits from doctorate study and a track into academia?
I was 30 years old, and I would wake up at three in the morning wondering, “Why am I worried about writing a paper about rocks from space, when there are people starving in the world?”
And I didn’t have an answer. I finally gave up and said, “I’m going to quit science. I’m going to do something worthwhile with my life.” I joined the U.S. Peace Corps, and I said, “I’ll go wherever you want me to go and do whatever you want me to do.” And they sent me to Kenya — I’m on the equator, I’m in an area where the skies are really dark, so I brought a little telescope with me.
And I discovered, first of all, what the Kenyans wanted from me was to teach astrophysics at the University in Nairobi. In Kenya were my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, and I’d go visit them out in the countryside. And I’d take my little telescope, and everybody wanted to look through the telescope and everybody wanted to see the moon and everybody wanted to see the rings of Saturn.
Have you ever seen the rings of Saturn through a little telescope?
I haven’t, no.
Oh, you’ve got to. And I guarantee the first thing you’re going to do is go, “Wow.” Because everybody goes, “Wow” when they see the rings of Saturn in a little telescope. Naturally, the people in Kenya did that.
It’s only human beings who look at the stars and wonder and go, “What is that? Who are they? Who am I? How do I fit here?” And this is an essential part of being a human being — dance, music, culture, all the things that are more than just putting food in your stomach.
And that made me suddenly understand: That’s why we do astronomy! That’s why it’s so important to do astronomy. I loved the teaching job. I went back to America, got a teaching position at Lafayette College. I was so happy there that I thought, “How can I do this full time and stand up for something more than just my own career?” And at that point I remembered the Jesuits. So I entered the Jesuits in 1989. They sent me to the Vatican’s observatory in 1993, and I’ve never looked back.
Tell us a bit about what the Vatican Observatory does. You’re not the first Jesuit to study the cosmos, certainly.
Oh, hardly. St. Ignatius in his autobiography talks about how he would love just to look at the stars and wonder, because that’s what human beings do. The first time there were Jesuits involved in astronomy working for the popes was back in 1582.
The modern version of the observatory dates back to 1891. Pope Leo XIII established it “so that the world can see that the Church supports true science.” So we’ve got two tasks. Number one, do good science. And number two, show the world.
So we’ve got basically a dozen astronomers. We come from four continents. We study everything from the cosmology of the big bang and quantum gravity to the characterization of meteors hitting the upper atmosphere of the Earth — from the incredibly big to the incredibly tiny. (Incidentally, the guy who does the incredibly big is a little short Italian, and the guy who does the really tiny stuff is this huge African guy.)
We all live together as Jesuits. The observatory was given to the Jesuit order to staff back in the 1930s, because that way we could all live together in one place under one rule and the Jesuits would be responsible for finding a dozen guys who had enough astronomy that they could be astronomers.
As I was saying earlier, I think it surprises some people that a Vatican observatory even exists. Faith and science together seem to be in conflict to many people. How do they live together for you?
If science is dedicated to finding the truth, you have to admit you don’t have the truth already. A little bit of humility goes a long way. And that goes with religion, too. We have these eternal truths that we don’t understand and will never understand completely. And anybody who thinks they understand God — I don’t know what God you’re understanding, but it’s not the real God who’s infinite.
Another way to look at it is to remind people of the great scientists in the past and in the present who are deeply religious people.
You’ve got a cell phone in your pocket and on the charger, it says so many volts, so many amps. Did you know that Mr. Volta and Mr. Ampere were both deeply religious, committed Catholics?
The Big Bang Theory? “Ah, how can you believe in the Big Bang Theory instead of Genesis?” The Big Bang Theory was invented by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître.
The only people who seem to be atheists in science are the guys who are public, the guys who are trying to sell themselves. And most scientists I know either are church-goers or at the most are agnostics. They’re saying, “We don’t know.” And frankly, none of us know for sure, but all of life is making choices when you don’t know for sure. That’s why they call it faith.
I’ve never experienced a conflict. I’ve never had a case where my religion said one thing and my science said another. But I have had a case where my science said one thing and another piece of science said the opposite, and I’m going, “These two things don’t work.” And that’s when you get excited, because you’re about to learn something new.
Where the religion fits in is the question, “Why am I doing the science?” If I’m doing it for my own career, to make money, boy, did you get in the wrong field! But if you’re doing it because you are in love with the universe and you are in love with the truth, what could be more religious than that? Love and truth.
Are there like practices that you encourage people to try to cultivate wonder in their own life?
The simplest one is something I do with high school kids. For the last six years or so, I’ve been teaching an online high school class. Every week, the students have got to go out and find the moon. I don’t care how light polluted your city is, you can see the moon. How many people pay attention to the moon?
To go outside and spend the moment to look up and find the moon and see how it has changed in its appearance and its position from night to night to night connects you with a world that’s bigger than the things that are making you worried right now.
I remember after 9/11 and the world felt like, “Oh my gosh, it’s all ended. And it’s terrible and the world is full of tragedy.” To look at the stars and go, “Well, Galileo saw those stars. Jesus Christ saw those stars. The world is bigger than my worries of today.”
Critics of things like space exploration might say something like, “It’s nice to learn things, but shouldn’t we first make sure everyone has enough food to eat?” Things like the project on Mars right now are so expensive.
Why do we want to make sure that people have enough food to eat? This is not a rhetorical question. This is a real question. When we work with the poor — which we want to do, which we need to do, which our Lord has instructed us in no uncertain terms to do — what’s the goal? The point is to give people enough comfort and free time that they can then feed their souls. Feeding your stomach is not the goal. It’s the means to a greater goal.
The creation story in Genesis has exactly this at its point because you can compare it to the Babylonian creation story. It’s the same science — whoever was writing Genesis used the best science of its day, which is Babylonian science. But the point of the Babylonian story was the creation of Babylon. The end point of the Genesis creation story: the seventh day is the day of rest. That is key. That makes the entire rest of the week have a point.
Looking at the universe and contemplating it and seeing that it was good — that is why we were created. Because otherwise, if all we do is feed the poor and help the hungry and help the sick, we eventually ourselves will become poor and sick and hungry because we will have lost sight of what it is we’re doing this for.