Proving the Church cares about science, and rock 'n' roll: Pope’s astronomer comes to Cork

Proving the Church cares about science, and rock 'n' roll: Pope’s astronomer comes to Cork

Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, at Mayo Dark Sky Festival in Newport. Picture: Karen Cox

Back in 2010, he made headlines after saying he would baptise an alien if you asked him. Brother Guy Consolmagno is not your ordinary Jesuit priest, he’s the Pope’s astronomer.

A keen Rory Gallagher fan, Br Guy is in Cork this week to “show the world that the Church supports science” and catch up with an old pal: Gallagher’s brother.

Br Guy, who is the director of the Vatican Observatory, splits his time between the Papal Gardens at Castel Gandolfo just outside Rome and the University of Arizona, where the teams use more modern equipment.

But does the Church not reject that final frontier above the skies, and castigate people like Galileo who dare to look up? Actually no, according to Br Guy.

“You’ll find that stories of the Church being anti-science and anti-astronomy are all done by people who are trying to push an anti-Church agenda,” the 70-year-old Jesuit said, insisting late 19th-century politics turned many into falsely believing the Church was anti-science. 

However, the Vatican Observatory has been up and running in its current system for more than 130 years, providing consistent funding for some decades-long projects that even Nasa cannot compete with.

While some might suggest researching the Big Bang might prove controversial for a religion that says the earth was created in just one week, it hasn’t deterred Br Guy.

I can find five different creation stories in the scripture and none of them agree with each other on the details of how creation happened.”  

“But all of them agree on the role of God in creation. No matter how you think it was, whether it was a Big Bang, or whatever the theory will be 1,000 years from now, the thing that remains the same is that creation is the result of a God who is not part of nature, but supernatural."

He stressed that Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître was the first to propose the Big Bang theory, and believes understanding our creation through science brings us “closer to our creator” and is effectively “an act of prayer”.

So why come to Ireland? After visiting Cork in 2009 to give a talk, Br Guy was put in touch with the brother of his musical icon Rory Gallagher, who happened to be an avid amateur astronomer. The pair hit it off straight away, Br Guy said.

“I learned the music of Rory Gallagher when I was a student at MIT, the two have always been going in parallel,” he said.

Donal Gallagher, who managed his brother’s tours, and his family later visited Br Guy at the Vatican Observatory.

Br Guy is in Ireland to give talks on astronomy in counties Cork, Mayo, and Kildare. 

His talk in Mayo focuses on “how people’s philosophical and theological ideas of how the universe worked affected the astronomy they did, and vice versa”.

“If you think that lightning bolts come from Zeus, you’re not going to work out Maxwell’s equations of electricity and magnetism,” he explained.

His visit to Ireland is much more than networking and sightseeing in rural Co Mayo at the Dark Skies Festival — he is here with a message: Irish skies are too bright at night.

“Light pollution is the bane of all astronomers,” he said. 

He believes too many streetlights are unnecessarily bright in Ireland and suggested a form of lampshades are installed to protect our skies from such light pollution. Inspired by Pope Benedict’s comments in the past, Br Guy said: 

Light pollution is a kind of egoistic, pointless, uglification of the world that alienates us from nature and stops us from seeing the sky — whenever you can see the sky in Ireland.

If you go outside on a cloudy night and it’s bright, there are “too many lights shining up instead of down”, he said.

Walking into your living room to find all the lampshades gone would be too bright, he said, and it should be the same on our streets.

Although Ireland, fortunately, has two dark sky sites, in Mayo and Kerry, much can be done to keep the night sky naturally dark, he said, and help astronomers like him understand our creation — Godly or otherwise.

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