Landregan lecture: why the Vatican studies meteorites

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Steven McDowell
Contributing Writer

On Saturday, Dec. 3, the School of Ministry held the 13th annual Landregan Lecture in Lynch Auditorium with an audience of about 200, including 30 or so University of Dallas undergraduates. The lecture is directed primarily to the School of Ministry community, although everyone was encouraged to attend, including undergraduates, alumni, and faculty and staff.  The featured speaker was Br. Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer and the current curator of the Vatican meteorite collection in Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

Consolmagno spoke on “Why the Vatican Studies Meteorites” and said that astronomy is a way to have an encounter with God by recognizing the beautiful objects he has created.

Consolmagno said that his lecture focused on three topics: “The meteorites, the Vatican and the ‘why.’” He said that, though meteorites are “extremely rare,” they can still tell us much about the universe.

He then described several tests that meteorites are often subjected to, such as the testing of radioactive “daughter products” to determine a meteorite’s age and the scanning of the visible and invisible light spectra of meteorites in order to discover their chemical content and “match” them with asteroids in the asteroid belt.

While describing the paradoxical and mutable nature of many meteoric discoveries, Consolmagno quipped, “If a theorist says something is possible, then he is right, but if he says something is impossible, just wait a while.”

He proceeded to give a brief history of Vatican astronomy – which began with Jesuit priest Fr. Angelo Secchi – the Jesuit’s small observatory on top of the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio in Rome, and Secchi’s pioneering work in astronomical spectroscopy. Galvanized by Pope Leo XIII, the Vatican continued its support of astronomy by moving the Vatican Observatory to Castel Gandolfo in 1929 and supporting the construction of another observatory at Mount Graham, Arizona, in 1983.

Since then, the Jesuits manning the Vatican Observatory have been given new quarters south of Castel Gandolfo, and they continue to conduct research in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics to this day.

Consolmagno concluded his lecture by saying that the Vatican supports astronomy because the universe is “beautiful, intriguing, and truly the heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord.”

For Consolmagno, “God is the meaning that underpins the fact of existence,” and therefore, science is one way that man can encounter God. He also said that anyone who believes that the Church is anti-science has “no concept of science, of the Church, or of history,” and that it is no mistake that the Catholic Church is and will continue to be one of the most ardent supporters of scientific research in the modern world.

Consolmagno’s lecture lasted for over an hour and was followed by a reception. The Landregan Lecture is held each year in honor of Steven T. Landregan, author and former editor of the “Texas Catholic,” for his continuing service to the Catholic Church. Past speakers have included journalist John Allen, Vanderbilt Professor Dr. Amy Jill-Levine, and Archbishop Michael Sheehan.

Consolmagno earned a B.S. and an M.S. in earth and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he received his Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona before taking his vows as a Jesuit brother in 1991. Consolmagno was assigned to the Vatican Observatory in 1993, and since then he has co-authored or edited five books on astronomy.

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