Gravity helped astronomer fall into vocation

Vatican scientist to speak at Mines campus ministry

Guy Consolmagno's yearbook photo from MIT.

Guy Consolmagno’s yearbook photo from MIT.

When heading off to college, Vatican astronomer, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, struggled with picking a major.

“When I was a freshman, I had no idea what I wanted to study. No idea at all,” the Detroit native, 62, told the Denver Catholic. “I loved everything—and I couldn’t choose among them.”

His best friend was going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a private research university in Cambridge among the most difficult in the country to get in to.

“I saw that (MIT) had the largest collection of science fiction, so I (figured), ‘What could I major in, that wouldn’t destroy me, so I could read science fiction?’” he said. “And I found a department called earth and planetary science.”

Planets, I’ll do that, he decided.

“I had no idea it was really the geology department,” he recalled. “I get there and discovered that among the rocks that you study are rocks that fall from the sky—meteorites. I had no idea there were such things.

“That was incredibly exciting and it’s been my passion ever since.”

He went on to earn bachelor and master’s degrees in earth and planetary sciences, a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona, and served as a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the Harvard College Observatory.

But after all that education, he said, he got “fed up” and began wondering, “Why am I doing astronomy when people are starving in the world?”

He quit astronomy, joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to serve in Kenya. People there saw his background and said, “Please teach us astronomy.”

“So I wound up teaching astronomy,” Brother Consolmagno said. “The people in Kenya were the ones that taught me how important it is to be connected to the bigger universe, because it feeds your soul.”

Those two years reinvigorated his life, he said, and sparked a passion for teaching that led him to join the Jesuit order. After taking vows as a Jesuit brother in 1991, he was assigned as an astronomer for the Vatican Observatory in 1993, where he’s served since. He splits his time between the Vatican’s main telescope at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s hilltop summer residence and vacation retreat outside Rome, and another one on a mountaintop near Tucson, Ariz.

“They ordered me to go to Rome,” he said, joking about being obedient in accepting such a beautiful assignment, “and take care of a collection of more than 1,000 meteorites.”

Brother Consolmagno has also served as the curator of the Vatican meteorite collection, one of the largest in the world; and been on governing boards of the Meteoritical Society, International Astronomical Union’s Division III, Planetary Systems Science, among others; and co-authored five books on astronomy.

He took on the role as head of the Vatican Observatory Foundation about six months ago, a group that raises funds to support the telescopes, and “shows the world” the science that the Church is supporting, he explained.

He will be the keynote speaker at an event for the campus ministry of the Colorado School of Mines April 7 at St. Joseph Church in Golden. There he will speak to students of the engineering university specializing in geosciences, as well as others, about his book, “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion.”

After interviewing engineers in Silicon Valley about their religious life for the book, he related their comments with philosophical reflections and the faith, and found there are many questions “we all have in common,” he said, whether a scientist or engineer, or even an agnostic or atheist.

“The trouble is too many people stop learning about religion at 10. Same with science,” he said.

He is looking forward to speaking to this particular group, he said, one that shares his passion for science and engineering.

“I’m talking to ‘my people,’ they get my jokes,” he said with a laugh.

And while jokes may be part of his talk, speaking with authority is key with an audience such as this, he added.

“Engineers and scientists are not impressed by a title or education,” he said. “When they ask, ‘Why should I listen to you?’ You’ve got to give them an answer.”

Events begin with 5:15 p.m. Mass, followed by drinks and dinner, and will conclude with Brother Consolmagno’s talk at 8 p.m. Tickets are $50, or $80 per couple. St. Joseph’s is located at 969 Ulysses St. in Golden. For more information, visit www.minescatholic.weebly.com or email mineschaplain@gmail.com.

>>> Has Pope Francis visited the Vatican Observatory?

Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square during his Wednesday general audience June 18.“Absolutely,” according to Brother Consolmagno, astronomer at the observatory more than 20 years, and Jesuit brother of the pope. “We had an audience with him with our summer school students last summer.”

Also during his first summer as pope, 2013, he visited Castel Gandolfo, where the observatory is located, though he doesn’t take his vacations there like other popes, Brother Consolmagno said.

“He had lunch with us,” he said. “It was a very nice private lunch. He had a great time, it was all very informal.”

For Father José Funes, S.J., director of the Observatory, the lunch was also a reunion of sorts.

“When (Father Funes) was thinking of entering the Jesuits, the Jesuit who interviewed him was Father Bergoglio,” he explained, “because José is also from Argentina.”

Argentine native “Father Bergoglio” is now Pope Francis.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash