Did you know that the Vatican has an observatory? Or that its research center is located in Arizona?

Last week I learned both of those facts, and many others, when I attended a sold-out lecture by Brother Guy Consolmagno, president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation and 2014 recipient of the Carl Sagan Medal for excellence in communication. The lecture’s title was called “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” And the story about how Guy came to speak at Chabot Space and Science Center was as intriguing as his presentation.

Allison and Guy Vatican astronomer (1)

Allison and Brother Guy Consolmagno

Guy, a Jesuit priest, was in the Bay Area on a speaking tour, and my friend Allison, who runs the East Bay SPCA, brought him to the attention of the Chabot team. Allison and Guy were old friends: they’d served together in the Peace Corps from 1983 to 1985, and all 80 members of that particular class have remained in close contact.

Before he joined the Peace Corps, Guy, a Detroit native, had earned a masters degree in astrophysics from MIT. Allison says that might explain why he was placed in Nairobi with electricity and running water while “the rest of us were in the bush with pit latrines and candles.” The members of the group got to know one another over 12 weeks of training and Swahili language immersion, as well as during quarterly gatherings for hepatitis shots and an annual conference on the coast. Allison recalls that Guy was brilliant, with a great sense of humor.

She lost track of him for a few years, “and next thing we know, he was a Jesuit priest living in the Vatican!” she says. She thinks he should have included information on this amazing journey as part of his lecture, but he did not.

He did, however, tell us a bit about the Vatican, its approach to science, and its Observatory. The Catholic Church, he asserted, has promoted good science since 1582. When the Vatican Observatory was established in Italy in 1891, it was with the intent to show that “the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it and promote it with the fullest possible dedication.”

The Observatory’s mission, as described on its website, is “to be on the frontier between the world of science and the world of faith, to give testimony that it is possible to believe in God and to be good scientists.” Its dependent research center, the Vatican Observatory Research Group, is hosted by Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which is where Guy is based.

“Doing science is an act of worship,” Guy told us. “Religion gives me the reason to do the science.”

He spoke about how both science and religion are constantly growing and changing, and about how important it is to continue a mutual dialogue that involves respect on both sides. His overriding message: science doesn’t undermine faith.

An admitted science-fiction fan, he said he hopes there really is life out there, but “we just don’t know.”

After his lively presentation, audience members asked provocative questions: Do animals have souls? What are Pope Francis’s views on climate change? Guy graciously lingered afterward to pose for photographs and sign copies of his 2014 book, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?”

“Only if she asks,” he says.

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