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Vatican astronomer shares joy of career that combines science and faith

Few people know that Brother Guy Consolmagno’s job exists, which is why it’s part of his job to explain it.

The director of the Vatican Observatory spoke Sunday afternoon at Juan Diego Catholic High School, describing a position that’s allowed him to collect meteorite fragments in Antarctica, work in a lab in a repurposed castle and share his faith with people around the world.

“Being a Jesuit brother at the Vatican Observatory doesn’t only mean I get to do wonderful science. It means that I get to be an ambassador of the creator in lots of different ways,” he said to an audience of scientists, students and community members.

Brother Consolmagno, who was appointed to his current position by Pope Francis in September, is a Jesuit brother with advanced degrees in planetary science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Arizona. As a Vatican astronomer, he analyzes meteorite fragments, while also working to correct people’s assumption that science and faith are in conflict.

“The reason for establishing an observatory was to show the world that the Church supports science. Showing the world is an essential part of what we do,” he said, noting that the Vatican Observatory turns 125 on March 14.

High school students had an opportunity Sunday to display their scientific knowledge, too. Brother Consolmagno’s presentation was paired with a small science fair showcasing the work of Juan Diego students.

Alannah Clay, a junior who shared her research into sleep apnea treatments, called Brother Consolmagno’s visit inspiring. As a Catholic and an aspiring scientist, she was excited that he cared enough to come.

“I think it’s incredible that he’d talk to us and teach us about science,” she said.

Brother Consolmagno said visiting with young people and sharing the joy of astronomy is one of his favorite parts of his job.

“You’re never too young to be able to learn important things,” he said. “The astronomy that I use now at 63 years old is, in part, based on the astronomy that I learned from a book that I read when I was 10 years old. Just as the religion that I (practice) now is solidly based on the religion that the nuns taught me when I was 10 years old.”

Brother Consolmagno’s presentation, titled “Adventures of a Vatican astronomer,” included tales of scientific discovery and spiritual awakening. His life illustrates how science and religion can coexist, he said.

“Both science and religion are processes, conversations and community activities,” he added.

Beth Bernards, a science teacher at Juan Diego, said she was glad students had an opportunity to hear from someone who so successfully brings faith and science into conversation.

“Science and faith are answering related questions,” she said. “Science asks, ‘How are we here?’ and ‘How does the world work?’ while religion asks, ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What is our purpose?’”

Bernards plans to assign excerpts from Consolmagno’s writings as reading assignments in her classes, in order to keep Sunday’s discussion going.

“There’s a misconception that we can’t hold beliefs in faith and science at the same time,” she said. “Brother Guy shows us that we can have both.”

His presentation also furthered one of Juan Diego’s core missions, said Galey Colosimo, the school’s principal.

“Our goal is to always engage students in the realities of the world,” he said. “Events like these may get the publicity, but … our day to day conversation is always about how faith informs you in the ways of the world.”

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