Vatican Observatory tries to understand God through science

By 
  • March 19, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - The Vatican has its eyes on outer space to bridge the divide between science and religion and promote good science, said Fr. José G. Funes, S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory.

Funes was in Toronto March 16 to give the Naming the Holy lecture at the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto on “The Evolving Universe.” The lecture is sponsored by the Newman Centre and the Regis College Jesuit community.

“Astrology can help us to understand our place in the universe. And the mission of the Vatican Observatory is to be a bridge between the church and science,” Funes said.

Funes, an astronomer with a PhD in physics, provided an array of scientific observations on star life and death, the formation of galaxies, black holes, neutron stars, exoplanets and “the habitable zone.”

Of the 430 exoplanets (planets of other solar systems) discovered so far, he said, very few come even close to the habitable zone, where life is possible like it is on Earth.

“So the next goal for astronomers is to discover planets similar to Earth,” he said.

Funes recalled the recent splash of headlines bringing attention to the Vatican Observatory because of a November meeting on astrobiology. Though it was the first conference it has held on that topic, it wasn’t the first time the church has examined the heavens.

He pointed out the Vatican Observatory has a long history of research and initiatives. The Vatican Observatory Research Group at the University of Arizona provides the clear skies needed for its ongoing research. 

But the tradition of the Vatican Observatory dates back to 18th-century Rome, making it one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world. Pope Pius XI made Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, the observatory’s new home and headquarters in the early 1900s. The modern observatory was entrusted to the Jesuits in the 1930s and today has two telescopes and an astrophysical laboratory for spectrochemical analysis.

When it comes to studying the stars, Funes said the cosmos has enhanced his faith because of the beauty and logic of the discipline.

“Science helps me to better understand my faith and could help us to better understand God Himself because theology also has this critical way of thinking.”

To the statement “we are the nuclear waste from stars or stellar dust,” Funes would add, “but with divine breath.”

“At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded that we are dust and we will return to dust,” Funes said. “There is a truth in Genesis, in the Bible, that goes beyond science. We are fragile. We are dust.

“This is what the church wants us to think about at the beginning of Lent but without forgetting what we have at the end, which is the resurrection of Jesus. This divine spirit that we receive at the end of Pentecost gives us sense and dignity of being children of God.”

For more on the observatory, see www.vaticanobservatory.org .

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