For most of us, it might be a surprise to know that the Vatican has an astronomical observatory. It is called the Vatican Observatory (Specola Vaticana), and it is one of the oldest conservatories in the world.
The term “specola,” an Italian word, is ancient. It is of Latin origin which means “observation point,” and was once synonymous with an astronomical observatory. The original idea of the Vatican Observatory dates back to 1578, when Pope Gregory XIII erected the “tower of the winds” in the Vatican and invited Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians of the Roman College to study. In there, the Gregorian calendar came to be four years later. (Read: LOOK: Vatican Museum experts discover Raphael’s last two paintings)
Since then, the Vatican Observatory has always been entrusted to the Jesuits. Even Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, carefully follows the activities, which go beyond the mere “observation” of the celestial bodies.
Study of Life
In 2016, Pope Francis met with the professors and students (23 graduates in fields related to astronomy) of the summer school of astronomy in Castel Gandolfo. He reflected on the theme of the school that year, which is the study of water in the solar system. (Read: 5 Filipinos Who Made Names in NASA and Space-Related Fields)
“It is really good and providential that this 15th summer school deals with the study of water in the solar system and elsewhere. We all know how essential water is here on earth: for life, for us human beings, for work. Today, access to pure water is a problem of social justice for the rich and poor,” Pope Francis said.
In short, at the Vatican Observatory, you don’t just look at the stars: every search is well-rooted in everyday life.
Very interested. Francis visiting the Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory of Castel Gandolfo (July 2013): here he is in the large library. (Photo from Vatican Media)
The Vatican Observatory, as we know it today, had its first “home” on the Vatican Hill, behind the St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Leo XIII wanted it there in 1891 to fight the accusation that the Church is opposed to scientific progress.
“I know that many people think that faith and science are in opposition to each other. But evidently [those people] know very little about science or very little about faith,” said Fr. Guy Consolmagno, a world-renowned Jesuit astronomer. (Read: 3 Priests in the PH Who Are Also Accomplished Scientists)
Pope Francis has appointed Fr. Consolmagno as director of the Vatican Observatory in September 2015. His life is a testimony itself—he decided to enter the Society of Jesus at almost 40 years old when he had written many scientific publications.
A Branch in Arizona
After 40 years, of being in the Vatican, the Observatory was transferred to Castel Gandolfo. The growth of Rome had made the sky above the city too bright to study the weakest stars, so Pope Pius XI ordered the transfer.
After another 40 years, when even the sky of Castel Gandolfo had become too bright, the Vatican Observatory Research Group was founded in Tucson, Arizona. In 1993, an advanced Vatican telescope was also placed here. Nonetheless, a very rich library of over 20,000 volumes and an important collection of meteorites remained in Castel Gandolfo. (Read: Vatican Archives Now Open to Researchers)
Every two years, meetings are organized with scientists from all over the world. And always every two years, the summer school is inaugurated by the Pope.
In his words to the students, Pope Francis wanted to remind everyone of the deep meaning of the Vatican Observatory. (Read: Three female astronauts who’ll inspire you to go after your dreams)
“Pope Leo XIII founded the Vatican Observatory in 1891 to let the world know how much the Church was a friend of ‘true and founded science, both human and divine.’ The participation of people from various countries and different cultures is a sign of how diversity can also enrich scientific research work.”