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Vatican observatory
Vatican observatory

CNN's Jim Hill explains why the Vatican has an observatory
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'Closer to God'

Papal astronomers interweave faith, science

January 26, 1999
Web posted at: 1:25 p.m. EST (1825 GMT)

MOUNT GRAHAM, Arizona (CNN) -- Seven thousand feet above the Arizona desert, a windswept observatory aims its powerful telescope to the heavens -- an appropriate direction. After all, this observatory is run by the Vatican.

"The reason I'm drawn into this -- the reason I have a passion to do it -- is the same reason I have a passion to come, some day, closer to God," said Father George Coyne, one of the pope's astronomers.

It's a far cry from the 1600s, when the Church condemned Galileo for revealing that the Earth revolved around the sun. Scientists are now encouraged to use the Vatican observatory, with its 72-inch telescope, "joyfully, with the help of God."


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Though the worlds of faith and science may seem as far apart as the galaxies themselves, the Vatican astronomers say their view through the telescope can bring both worlds into sharper focus.

"The meeting place of God and science is the whole universe, because that's where God is active," said Father Chris Cormally, Vatican astronomer.

The Roman Catholic Church established the Vatican Observatory in 1891, three centuries after Pope Gregory XVIII asked scientists to use astronomy to create the modern calendar. Drawn by the clear, desert skies of Arizona, the church built this facility in 1993.

It's staffed by Jesuit astronomers who advance the Vatican's knowledge of the sciences. The Jesuits report to the pope every year and publish their work in research journals.

"Very happily, in the Vatican Observatory, we're given freedom to do what we want," Cormally said.

The observatory at Mount Graham, a nearly 11,000-foot peak northeast of Tucson, is run in partnership with the University of Arizona.

"There are probably six sites as good as this one in the entire world," said graduate student Claudia Burg. "We're very fortunate to be here."

And for the priests who man it, it provides a window onto creation through which few others in their vocation can peer.

"You know the joy of discovery and the unity of these things. That is joy. It truly is," Coyne said.

Correspondent Jim Hill contributed to this report.

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