May 4, 2010

Vatican Official Closer To God Through Astronomy

A Jesuit priest at Vatican City, who is also the chief astronomer, says that star-gazing helps bring him closer to God.

Jose Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican's astronomic observatory, told the AFP news agency that he became an astronomer in order to "get closer to God who created the universe." While at the observatory in the park surrounding the pope's summer home, he remarked: "We wonder the same things that our secular colleagues do -- how does the universe work, how did it originate, are there planets similar to Earth?"

Funes, 47, studied astronomy before joining the priesthood, as did his colleague, Guy Consolmagno.

"I'm primarily a scientist," said Consolmagno, a former university professor in the United States. "It's my belief in God that gives me the courage to do science because I have to have a faith... that there are answers, that there are laws to be found, that the universe is worth studying, it's not just chaos," he told AFP.

"Where I actually experience God is in the joy, in the delight when the numbers suddenly make sense, when the theory works," he added.

Funes has run the observatory since 2006. It is located in a former monastery on the edge of the papal sprawl, an appropriate location suggesting the intersection of faith and science.

Funes pointed out that they are the pope's observatory. "We are here to serve the pope, the Church and our colleagues," he said. "The Church has always been interested in astronomy."

Papal astronomers long ago contested theories seen as dangerous -- such as those of Galileo, who had the audacity to claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It all seems far away here, where the second edition of Galileo's "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems" is displayed with pride, after once being banned by the inquisition in the 1600s.

The simple one-story facility's work has been limited to research and teaching since 1981, when the observatory set up a telescope in Tucson, Arizona, because of the purity of the sky there.

An older telescope is still used in the papal residence to observe nearby planets, however.

The Tucson observatory has earned the attention of the world scientific community. It proved the existence of the so-called green flash, an optical effect visible when the sun sets over the sea where there are no clouds.

"We showed that it wasn't subjective, that it could be observed and photographed," said Funes.

When it comes to the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life, Funes has no fears. The Catholic Church has no explicit doctrine on the complicated topic.

"There is no proof of extra-terrestrial life so far, but in a universe that is so huge with a hundred billion galaxies that each have billions of stars, some of them could have characteristics similar to Earth's." said Funes.


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