Vocation and avocation go together for Jesuit astronomer

CHARLESTON — Bishop England High School students were honored by a visit Nov. 19 from the only man who claims to be above the pope.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno is the lucky astronomer at Castel Gandolfo Observatory who lives in the apartment directly above Pope John Paul II’s summer quarters.

He’s a top planetary scientist for the Vatican, but jokes like that are part of his style when talking about his vocation and avocation.

Take his theory on atheism: “In order to be an atheist you have to have a very clear understanding of the God you don’t believe in.”

Brother Consolmagno was in Louisville, Ky., for a meeting and was going to visit his parents in Florida when he accepted an invitation from the College of Charleston. So, he stopped along the way to Florida so he could visit friends in Charleston including William Durst, chair of the theology department at BEHS.

“You can tell he really loves what he does,” Durst said. “The kids are really yearning to see someone doing something that makes them happy, and they can enjoy that.”

Brother Consolmagno spent the day meeting with faculty and students and giving talks to the student body.

It’s apparent he loves what he does and doesn’t mind sharing that excitement. He often uses the word “joy” when talking about his work. He spends six months out of the year traveling, giving talks about science and religion, and leading seminars.

He told students that he loves the balance between religion and science and doesn’t understand why people think there is a conflict. The two match perfectly, he said.

“To be a scientist requires three things,” he said. “You’ve got to believe that the universe exists. You have to believe that there are scientific laws to be uncovered and that the universe is governed by those laws. And you’ve got to believe that it is worth doing.

“A faith that has no science has no faith,” Brother Consolmagno said. “Just like science that has no faith is missing a large chunk of truth.”

In talking to students, he urged them to do whatever they are good at doing.

“The important thing is to never forget why you are doing it, never forget the joy of creation.”

He also had a theory about the three most important classes in high school which he said are math, speech and English. He said that when something is discovered, it has to be explained, written up and then presented.

“The one who does the best presentation gets the credit,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Jesuit astronomer was chosen to be part of a five-man team of international astronomers to decide if Sedna — the most distant object yet seen orbiting the sun — is really a planet. It is 8 billion miles away from the sun. No new planet has been discovered for the past 70 years, and there is no working definition of what a planet is.

The International Astronomical Union — a world body of about 100 member nations, including the Vatican — set up the group to decide on an official definition of a planet.

The union also will decide whether Sedna — named after the Inuit goddess of the Arctic Sea — can join the solar system’s planetary club.

Work like that just furthers Brother Consolmagno’s stance on the meshing of science and religion. He sees the ever-expanding universe as a sign of God’s profundity.

“I’m a nerd about my religion,” he said. “I’m a fanatic about science.”

Brother Consolmagno told the Bishop England teenagers that there once was a time when he didn’t know what to do with his life. This former indecision seems odd in a person who was a geology graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who went on to receive a doctorate in planetary science from the University of Arizona and become a lecturer at the Harvard College Observatory.

But his uncertainty about what to do with his life led him to join the Peace Corps after college. He went to Kenya and Nairobi, where he taught astronomy. It became a moving and inspiring experience for him to see people with a thirst for knowledge despite their poverty.

“If you deny people a chance to discover, you deny them their humanity,” he said.

After his stint in the Peace Corps, he heard his calling loud and clear and joined the Jesuit order.

“When I became a brother I took three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience,” he said. “I thought, ‘What’s the difference from the way I was living before? Now I don’t have to pretend it was deliberate.’ ”

He was assigned to the Vatican observatory, where he gets to do what he loves: scientific research without having to worry about getting grants.

In his travels, the question the Jesuit is most often asked is if he believes extraterrestrials exist. His answer comes with trademark honesty.

“God can do anything he wants. We don’t know,” he said.

Brother Consolmagno hopes to teach people that science is sometimes depending on your sense of spirituality.

“All logic is based on intuition and logic is learned,” he said. “Logic isn’t ironclad, it’s just making the intuitive leaps and steps so someone else can learn it.”

Though students may have been expecting cold hard facts, they got a lesson in faith, science and joy.

“Humor also emphasizes the fact that I don’t know for sure,” Brother Consolmagno said. “It’s that humility of being able to draw the line of what you know and what you don’t know.”