Critics of the Roman Catholic Church like to paint the 2,000-year-old first Christian institution as being out-of-step with modern science; such notions today are prejudicial and ill informed. Moral issues as they relate to science and technology aside, the Vatican is very much interested in modern scientific research, especially the field of astronomy.
While critics may cite the Vatican's denouncing of 17th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei as evidence of the church's scientific repression, that's stale news to the pope's 21st-century staff of credentialed clerical astronomers and astrophysicists.
Recently, Pope Benedict XVI kicked off the opening of the Vatican Observatory's new stand-alone digs in Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence near the Eternal City, Rome. The observatory had been located in small quarters on castle property since 1935.
During the week that the new, expanded observatory headquarters opened, the pope spent several hours with papal astronomers learning about black holes, dark matter and the moments immediately following the Big Bang.
For church leaders, there's profound majesty in understanding the our univers is immensely old. For them, there appears to be no challenge to the "Word of God" in accepting the universe as it was created eons ago.
Pope Benedict began the open house with a prayer and blessing for the staff and gathered news crew. A few opening words of greeting were then offered by U.S. Jesuit astronomer Fr. George Coyne, former director of the observatory.
Two years ago, Seeing Stars was kindly granted an interview, via e-mail, with U.S. astronomer and Jesuit Guy Consolmango while he was at work at the Vatican Observatory. We just learned that Brother Consolmango personally greeted the pope at the recent open house and showed him the Vatican's own beautiful specimen of the carbon-rich Nakhla meteorite found in Egypt in 1911. This meteorite is believed to have been blasted off the surface of the planet Mars millions of years ago.
Consolmango presented Benedict was a pair of gloves to wear to prevent contaminating the specimen while handling the piece of a shooting star.
Gently holding the fragment of space rock, the pope said in astonishment, "I am holding a piece of Mars!"
According to Coyne's report to the Catholic News Service, "The Holy Father was curious about our work in the United States of America, so we had some nice photographs of our mountain observatory in Arizona to show him."
The Vatican established the Arizona observatory in Tucson back in 1981 because light pollution had so destroyed Rome's night sky for useful deep-sky observing. Today, the observatory's administrative and data work is conducted at the newly expanded Castel Gandolfo site; observing is conducted in Arizona.
"The pope looked very carefully at our exhibits," Coyne told the news media following the observatory's open house. "He very much wanted to be involved with our new headquarters. His visit was magnificent because it shows his personal interest in our work-after all, it is his observatory."
What's in the Sky: The Sun is now at its highest point at noon this week as June 21 marked the first day of summer here in the Northern Hemisphere. The plane of the ecliptic-the path that our Sun and the local planets travel as viewed from Earth-is low in the sky this time of year-at midnight.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former senior science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He is a current member of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont. You can contact him at: email@example.com.