Br. Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, sees faith and science as complements in understanding the universe and its wonders. Photo courtesy Br. Guy Consolmagno

Looking beyond the stars

  • April 10, 2024

Despite all his years of studying the heavens, both as a scientist and a Jesuit, Br. Guy Consolmagno has never lost his sense of awe about the universe, nor of the God who created it.

“There are just so many exciting things going on right now,” the 71-year-old Consolmagno said as he prepared for an upcoming lecture at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont. “It’s a fantastic time to be alive and a fantastic time to be a nerd.”

In the days leading up to the “Great North American Solar Eclipse” April 8, there was no mistaking the anticipation Consolmagno was feeling in an interview with The Catholic Register. Although he had only seen one solar eclipse in his lifetime, Consolmagno recalls it as unforgettable and a moment that he likens to the spiritual experience.

“We don’t see eclipses every day, just as we don’t have that immediate sense of God’s presence every day. Yet when it does happen, you can’t forget it,” he said. “Even though I can use my science to predict within the second when the eclipse is going to happen, which is a tremendous testament to a God who is predictable and isn’t arbitrary, it still allows us to see how the universe works. Yet, even though I can predict when the eclipse will happen, I cannot predict how it’s going to affect me, how beautiful it’s going to be and the emotions that I might have … that reveals a God who is both reliable and surprising.”

The native of Detroit has been straddling the worlds of science and religion for decades, never seeing them as subjects that belong in separate dwellings. He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from MIT and a PhD in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona before joining the Jesuits in 1989 and, four years later, taking up a post with the Vatican Observatory. He has been its director since 2015 and is also president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

His work throughout a storied career has seen him earn awards such as the Carl Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public in 2014, as well as a PhD Honoris Causa of Humane Letters from Georgetown University that same year. His unique perspective on the worlds of science and religion has made him a highly sought-after speaker.

Consolmagno’s April 15 presentation at St. Jerome’s is titled “When Science Goes Wrong: The Desire and Search For Truth,” and shares its name with a book published by Consolmagno and Christopher M. Graney, an adjunct scholar from the Vatican Observatory.

“Both the title and the subject matter of the lecture reflect a book that I’ve just published with my good friend Chris Graney, and I have to mention him because all the research and good ideas are his and all the jokes are mine,” Consolmagno quipped.

“In reality, the title reflects the desire that we have to communicate what science really is and why we love it. It is not a religion substitute by any means, but rather a wonderful way of learning how to learn.” 

Consolmagno’s lecture will look to show that science is not perfect as it is often portrayed, that it is not “the answers at the back of the book” or “the source of eternal and absolute truth,” but rather the exact opposite. Alluding to the “when science goes wrong,” Consolmagno confirmed that in science, failure isn’t an option, it’s a requirement.

A critical moment that Consolmagno recalls shaping the content of this lecture arose from the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the ideologies of science and faith clash on a global stage.

“I was understanding and seeing how people were misunderstanding the research about COVID and misusing science, both by those who wanted to doubt the validity of science and vaccines and those who wanted to say they trust the science implicitly,” Consolmagno said.

“When you say follow the science, it’s almost like you’re saying, ‘follow the science, don’t follow Jesus,’ and that’s not what we want to say. That’s a misunderstanding of what science is, we trust science knowing not only that it could be wrong, but in some details probably is wrong. We trust it anyway because it’s still the best we’ve got.”

Even further, the lecture is looking to reveal how, as a model, science can be used to recognize the way we interact and relate with God through our own relationship.

Consolmagno’s presentation will mark the final instalment in St. Jerome’s Lectures in Catholic Experience for this year, an initiative that’s tackled a variety of topics and themes that apply to the Catholic faith. The event is set to begin at 7:30 p.m. and will be available in-person and online.

“Having experienced his engaging talks in the past, I know that Br. Guy brings a powerful commitment to faith and science to his own pursuit of truth, both as a Jesuit religious brother and as an accomplished scholar and planetary scientist,” said Peter Meehan, president and vice-chancellor at St. Jerome’s. “I think this will be an important talk here on the campus of a world-renowned STEM university such as the University of Waterloo.”

The sentiment is shared by this month’s featured speaker, who is looking forward to presenting his knowledge to those in attendance while potentially changing some people’s minds as well.

“First of all, It’s fun, and If it’s not fun, then why are we doing it?” Consolmagno joked when asked about the importance of speaking to university students. “When you are in the midst of studying science or engineering, as many of these students are, you hardly have a chance to catch your breath and ask, why am I doing this? To have a lecture where you can take a breath and potentially answer that question will then better direct you to find the things you want to do for the rest of your life.”

“There’s too many young people who think that religion and science are opposed, so the fact that I can get up there with my clerical brother’s collar and an MIT ring and remind them that of course they’re not opposed. One encourages us to do the other — both ways.”

Apart from his lecture, Consolmagno is working on his next book, The Jesuit Guide to the Stars, planned for release next year, as well as directing scientists at the observatory. More news about the Vatican Observatory can be found at

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