Vatican team sees a creator in the creation

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

SAFFORD, Ariz. – Though the Vatican has operated a telescope on Mount Graham since 1993, the Rev. Christopher Corbally said the church is not focused on astronomy in the name of finding a higher power hidden in the depths of the cosmos.

“The subject of this science is God’s creation,” he said, clarifying that science and religion can be complementary. “By finding out how things work, one is enjoying creation along with the creator. As Genesis puts it, ‘At the end of each day, God saw it was good.’ There is that sort of sense to it.”

Approximately 800 feet from the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham sits the Vatican’s envoy to Arizona astronomy, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.

Among other things, the telescope and its approximately 7-foot mirror are used to study the universe’s dark matter and energy, expansion and quasars.

The Vatican has been interested in astronomy since the 16th century, said Corbally, a Jesuit priest and vice director of the Arizona branch of the Vatican Observatory Research Group.

Originally, followers of Pope Gregory XIII used astronomy to correct a Roman calendar that became out of sync with the seasons, he said.

The calendar’s reform led to the Gregorian calendar that is used to this day, Corbally said.

“It was a practical reason the church got into astronomy formally,” he said.

Vatican interest in the heavens ebbed and flowed with the interest of staff members until the middle of the 19th century, when a Jesuit named Angelo Secchi did extensive work mapping the sun’s surface and stars.

After years of strained ties between the Vatican and the Italian government, Pope Leo XIII re-established the Vatican Observatory in 1891.

“And it’s continued to this day,” Corbally said.

The observatory was originally situated on a hill within the walls of Vatican City, he said. But as electric lights increased throughout Rome in the 1920s and 1930s, the ability to see stars decreased.

“You could no longer see the stars as Angelo Secchi once could,” Corbally said.

Shortly after, the observatory relocated to Gandolfo Castle, southeast of Rome, but the area also became unsuitable for astronomy. As the population increased, Corbally said, so did the light.

That led the Vatican to search out the prime astronomical conditions of Arizona in the 1970s. The idea was to keep Gandolfo Castle as headquarters while establishing a research arm in Arizona.

“Rather than moving the telescopes, we would move people and establish another base,” Corbally said. “We didn’t come with an idea of bringing a telescope, but of making a telescope.”

Help came in the form of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, which was just beginning to construct telescopic mirrors using its spin-casting technique.

Steward Observatory had made a single mirror as a prototype to show it could be done, observatory director Peter Strittmatter said.

“We had no plans, and we wanted to see it used,” Strittmatter said of the mirror. “The Vatican Observatory provided funds for the telescope and the enclosure, and we provided the mirror.”

The Vatican owns 75 percent of the telescope, and the University of Arizona owns 25 percent, Corbally said.

John Ratje, site manager of the Mount Graham telescope site, said the mirror, made by University of Arizona astronomy professor Roger Angel and constructed in an old synagogue, is an example of cross-culturalism at work.

“It’s the neatest little telescope,” Ratje said. “It’s designed by an ‘Angel,’ made in a temple and operated by the Jesuits.”