Knowing the Creator through his creation: why the Vatican astronomer loves his job


This is the second part of NZ Catholic’s interview with Vatican Observatory director Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ. Br Guy is a physicist and an astronomer.

NZC: Why a brother, not a priest and why a Jesuit?

Br Guy: I went to a Jesuit school and I was familiar with them. I also worked with Christian Brothers and Franciscans and I admire them all. But it was clear that my personality fits best with the Jesuits, a sort of [being] very practical and yet spiritual at the same time.

I thought very much about being a priest when I was in my late teens but I was doing it for the wrong reasons as I realised when I was praying about it. I wanted the prestige. I wanted to be my own boss. Roll out of bed anytime I want to on Sunday morning and not have to get to church, not good reasons to be a priest.

It was not until I was nearly 40-years-old, I was a scientist and teaching at a university in America, I had just broken up with a girlfriend, thinking about what I wanted to do in life when, again, it was a call from the outside. It said, first of all, marriage and family is not for you. Wonderful, but you don’t get to have it. And secondly, the thing that fits your personality is to be a brother. It was almost a voice like that.

The fact that I never thought to be a brother, that I thought this was completely unexpected made me really recognise it was not from inside. It wasn’t me talking to myself.

But of course, what you do is you don’t immediately run off and join. You ask your friends. You pray about it. You do a retreat and spend a year going through this. And every step I took, I felt a confirmation. This is where I feel at home. This is where I feel is right. All of my friends were telling me, we could have told you, you were a natural for this, including the girls I dated.

I’m a member of the community, just like a priest but my first focus, actually, is supporting the community whereas a priest’s focus is more oriented to people outside the community. So, it fits really well with the job I’m doing. My job is hold the obser vatory together so the other guys get to go out and do their work. And I’m really happy doing it.

My parents are 98 and 94 and they are still living at home and we chat on the computer. It’s astonishing. [My father] calls me. It’s a real blessing.

NZC: What do you do? What is your job?

Br Guy: A lot of it is taking care of the bureaucratic  work necessary to make sure that the other astronomers, and there are a dozen of us who are full time  astronomers, that they have the resources they need to do their science. Their mission is simply to do good science because the mission of the entire observatory is to show the world that the Church embraces good science. We are not afraid of it. We want to know more. We want to be part of it. Being intimate with creation is a wonderful way to know the Creator.

Part of that mission is not simply to do the science, but to show the world. And so a lot of what I do as a director is public speaking, public outreach, going out on television, being interviewed by the local Catholic press. What you are doing right now is an essential part of the task of the Vatican Observatory, spreading the word, especially to Catholics, of how much the Church loves good science and is not afraid of what science can teach us. And it also knows that science never has the final word. Because every scientist knows that. There’s always more to learn. There’s always new surprises just when you think you’ve got it figured out. And that is a source of joy.

NZC: Does faith/religion have the final word?

Br Guy: Religion has truth but we as humans are always struggling to understand those truths. Every one of us who is raised a Catholic recognise moments where something occurs in our lives then we go, “oh, that is what Sister was talking about when I was ten years old and didn’t know what it means”. Our understanding grows as our lives grow.

And so even there, no one has the final understanding.It takes a life of living to really begin to understand God. It’s like a married couple. My parents have been married 71 years. They are in their 90’s and they are still learning about each other. The only thing that’s final is death. And I’m not ready for that.

NZC: Do you see the Holy Father often? 

Br Guy: Not on a regular basis. But I spoke to him a couple of times. If there is an issue . . . , I can ask for a private audience and raise the issue with him. That sort of thing generally happens, once every sort of couple of years. But for instance, we have a summer school every two years and he will have an audience with the students and speak with them.

NZC: What does he think of what you do? 

Br Guy: He is a Jesuit and a scholar and a former chemist. So, he understands science and he understands what it is we do and why we do it. It’s clear that the focus of his day-to-day work is elsewhere. He has problems and we’re not one of them. Our job is to make sure that we are not one of his problems. And in a sense, we are shoring up a side that’s pretty solid so that he can concentrate his efforts where they are needed elsewhere.

Other Popes in the past had an active interest. Pius XII was an amateur astronomer and he would visit the head of the Observatory all the time to talk about the latest in astronomy. Benedict was a professor and when he came to visit here, he was full of interesting science questions: how do you know this? What is the measurement that tells you that? Both he and John Paul II would have an informal circle of friends who would come usually in the summer time when things are quiet to talk about everything going on in the world of academia, whether it’s science or literature. Generally, in their own language. John Paul would look for people [with whom] he could chat informally in Polish. All off-the-record. Nothing published. Just to keep him plugged into this world that they loved. Because they were both former professors.

So, it really changed from personalities and interest. I do get the impression that the Holy Father is very happy with what we are doing. And if he weren’t, I suspect I’d hear from him.

NZC: Is there a papal letter on astronomy?

Br Guy: There is a statement on the world of Church and science that is written as a letter from Pope John Paul II to the director of the Vatican Observatory at that time George Coyne. It’s an excellent, rather in depth description of the roles that science and Church should have. You can find it online.

NZC: You were a scientist living in a very secular world and yet you joined the Society of Jesus. 

Br Guy: That’s one of the reasons why the Jesuits were perfect (for me) because they live in the world. We don’t live in the monastery. We live alongside, and I continue to, the people I write papers with, my colleagues.

One of the surprises that happened to me when I became a Jesuit was to meet the other scientists I’ve known for years and suddenly they had the freedom to talk to me about their religion. I was surprised how many of them were people of faith. This last weekend (September 10-11), there was a programme that the Awana Rural Women’s group had put together at Great Barrier Island. There were five of us, colleagues from around the world. There was a biologist, astronomer . . . all of us were churchgoers and we only discovered this when we were talking to each other. And the theory is always, I’m the only one so I’ll keep it quiet when very often, no, you’re not the only one. One of the privileges of being a Jesuit is people are comfortable talking to me about their faith.

NZC: You don’t have to preach?

Br Guy: No, simply by existing, with my collar and my MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) ring, that’s all the preaching I need to do.

NZC: I noticed last night at AUT that you would put in religious insights in the middle of the discussions.

Br Guy: Anyone else out there could have. I’m no wiser than them. But in our society, they couldn’t. Only somebody who’s got the collar, only somebody who is a sister or a brother or a priest is given permission to talk about those things in society.

NZC: Why do you think that is? 

Br Guy: I don’t know. I think part of it is the downside of multiculturalism. There are so many cultures, so many religious beliefs that we’ve recognised not to bring up in a larger way fundamental things like that. You don’t ask people what they do for a living, you don’t ask who they voted for.

NZC: Do you lose points for believing in God when you are a scientist?

Br Guy: No, you don’t actually. Even my friends who aren’t churchgoers and don’t believe think it is marvellous -“I have a friend who works in the Vatican”.

Especially among younger scientists, there is a tremendous openness to a variety of ways we handle our religious faith. The only people who seem to be closeminded about it are the elderly white males who call themselves the new atheists and they’re not all that new. And I’ve nothing against elderly white males. I’m rapidly becoming one myself. But I find, and this is something actually C. S. Lewis says too, the stronger your faith, the more comfortable you are with people of other faiths. You don’t feel threatened. You don’t feel afraid of them. Instead you say, this is wonderful. Maybe I can learn something from them.

The people who are the fundamentalists in my experience are the people who are afraid of losing their faith because their faith isn’t very strong. And so they claim to be fundamentalists rather than using their faith as a launching place to see a much bigger world. One person put it to me, they are more likely to worship the Bible than to worship God. And that is a form of idolatry, too. You find that also in science, in people who would worship nature. That is a form of idolatry.

The book of nature is like the book of Scriptures. They are to point us not to nature nor scripture but the author. You don’t confuse the message with the messaging.

NZC: You must be tired of people asking you about faith and science being opposed to each other. 

Br Guy: Yeah. Because since obviously they (science and faith) are not and here I am, there’s a big problem with the question you are asking me. And I don’t want to say, if somebody asks me a question, “you are stupid and go back and do it again”. But, oh, it’s tempting.  I’m sorry, if you can’t deal with the reality that’s there because it doesn’t fit your assumptions, I’m not going to enable you to continue being stupid.

Journalism is tough because you stand for the public in all of its misconceptions and all of its theories, and yet, you’re also there to be a bridge to pull people out of that. And sometimes, you’re straddling such a wide gap, you are likely to fall in.

I started my life as a journalist. I know how hard it is. I really appreciate the work you guys do. Today, you are an expert in theology and astronomy. This afternoon, you’re writing about a soup kitchen. It’s a real challenge but it’s still essential.

We say we’re there to show the world that the Church supports science. Who is the world that we are talking to? It’s not the other scientists. As I say, most of them already have faith. It’s the people in the pews. It’s the people who have been told you can’t be a scientist and a believer. And as a result, because they are happy with their beliefs, they are going to reject science. And that’s a tragedy. If your daughter comes to you and say, I want to be a scientist, you don’t say, “Oh no, she’ll lose her faith.” You’ll say, “how wonderful, she’ll get see creation and the Creator in a way and a depth that most people never get to.

NZC: Do you have a message to Catholic Kiwis? 

Br Guy: Well, the one last thing I’d like to do is an advertisement. We talk about astronomy and all the issues we talk about here in a blog that the Vatican Observatory Foundation runs. If you google The Catholic Astronomer, you should find our blog.

The link is and I’d love people to dip in every now and then and see what we have to offer. It’s a place where they can see faith and astronomy alive together.

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Rowena Orejana

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