Diocesan News

Astronomer speaks at seminary, Newman Institute

Story by Reagan Scott

(SNR) - Last week, Father David Brown SJ, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, spoke to students from the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture and St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward.

Those in attendance had the opportunity to learn more about the history of the Vatican Observatory, as well as Father Brown’s experiences as both a priest and a scientist.

“We’re all scientists,” he said about himself and his colleagues, “and we all do the same things as any other astronomer or physicist, except we’re all priests and brothers.”Photo by Reagan Scott

Father Brown, a native of Louisiana, got his undergraduate degree in physics from Texas A&M University and obtained his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Oxford University following the completion of his master’s degree during his Jesuit formation at Fordham University and theology studies at the Westin Jesuit School of Theology.

In November 2008, Father Brown joined the Vatican Observatory where he does research on stellar evolution— the study of how stars are born and die. 

While Father Brown spends most of his time at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, 16 minutes outside of Rome, he was passing through Lincoln on his way to the observatory’s other location in Tucson, Ariz.

He was able to give his talk, “The Church, Science and the Vatican Observatory” at the request of Dr. John Freeh, the director of the Newman Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Father John Rooney, vice-rector and astronomy teacher at St. Gregory the Great Seminary during his visit.

Related item: Seminary gifted large telescope

The first part of the talk detailed the history of the Vatican Observatory and the reasons for its creation. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII created a committee to reform the previously used Julian calendar, which was off by a few days.

Thus, the Gregorian calendar was created using astronomy. Scientists’ knowledge of the sky established Easter as the Sunday following the first full moon of the spring equinox.

After the committee’s success and the success of following astronomers, Pope Leo XIII formally re-founded the Vatican Observatory in 1891, more than 127 years ago.

Since then, the observatory has moved locations from Vatican City to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo to combat light pollution from Rome. As the city grew and the telescopes that the astronomers were using aged, a new location for the Observatory was needed.

In 1981, the Observatory founded its second research center in Tucson, and its new telescope was completed in 1993 on Mt. Graham. Since then, half of the Observatory’s astronomers spend their time in Castel Gandolfo, while the others work in Arizona.

In his work as a priest and astronomer, Father Brown often gets questions about the perceived contradiction of faith and science, but he said that the two are complementary and can go hand-in-hand.

Father Brown explained that the Church believes that education and reason draw people closer to God.

“Creation is good,” Father Brown said, “and something of the truth of God is evident in it. God’s creation is not random; it’s beautifully ordered.”

Father Rooney appreciated the chance to have Father Brown speak at the seminary after he attended a “Faith and Astronomy” workshop put on by the Vatican Observatory in Tucson.

Following the workshop, and spurred by his own interest in developments in astronomy, Father Rooney came back ready to teach the subject at the seminary in the fall, and has now taught the class for three years.

After he had received a master’s degree in physics in college, Father Rooney wasn’t sure he was going to use physics any more, but he has enjoyed getting to teach science to the seminarians.

“Young people today are believing that faith and science are opposing,” Father Rooney said.

As part of his job, Father Rooney is able to ensure that future priests are able to get some background in science and are prepared to address any questions about the relationship between faith and science that may come their way.  

Astronomy isn’t only for the scientifically and mathematically inclined, Father Rooney was quick to point out.

“Astronomy is one of the most ancient of the sciences,” he said. “Anyone can look at the sky, and anybody can look and see the beautiful order of God’s creation.”

Having the opportunity to have Father Brown visit was a unique opportunity for the seminarians, and Father Rooney is happy to have given them the experience.

He said, “I was thrilled that we could have someone of Father Brown’s caliber come here and it was nice to give the seminarians a taste of what it was like for me to go to Tucson.

“Father Brown was available for conversations the day he was here,” Father Rooney continued, “and he gave a lot of good insights on what it is like being a priest who is also a scientist.”

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