Interview with Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ | Director, Vatican Observatory

What made you give up the prospects of a very promising career as a professor and join the Jesuits?

When I was thirty years old, I was working as a postdoctoral fellow doing scientific research at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), which is perhaps the best science and technology school in the world. But I found myself dissatisfied with a life of only doing pure research. Why put all that effort into studying the moons of Jupiter when there were people starving in the world? That is what motivated me to leave science and join the US Peace Corps.

Did the two years you spent teaching in Kenya as a member of the U.S. Peace Corps play a role in your vocation to the Society? 

Once I got to Africa as a member of U.S. Peace Corps I learned three important things.

First, I learned how much I loved teaching. My first assignment was to a good high school in Nairobi, and then I was moved to the University of Nairobi itself. In both places I experience pure joy in thinking about how to explain complicated physics and astronomy topics to my students, and in seeing how much joy in turn those students gave me as they grew in their understanding of our physical universe. I believed this is what I wanted to do more than anything else, once I returned to America.

In addition, I learned that even people in remote villages are hungry to hear about the stars and the planets. When I would visit my other Peace Corps friends in remote places I would bring my little telescope and give astronomy talks. Everyone there was so excited to look through my telescope, and to hear about what we were learning from the space probes. That made me appreciate why, indeed, we do astronomy even when people are starving. Human beings are hungry for knowledge, for a chance to wonder about the universe and their place in it. We do not live by bread alone.

And finally, I learned that these two things — studying the cosmos and telling people about it — were where my talents lay. I did not have a talent for personal interactions, for helping people with problems or even understanding and listening in a way that could help them. My talents are deep but narrow. And it made sense to recognize my limitations as well as my talents.

When I returned to America I had four wonderful years teaching physics and astronomy at a small university-level school in Pennsylvania. I really did love teaching. But even there I wanted to recapture what was also important in the Peace Corps: to do this work while representing a reason bigger than my own career. That made me think of joining the Jesuits, since they run nearly two dozen universities in the US. 

But why did you choose to become a Brother – not a priest?

I knew I did not have the “people-talents” to be a good priest. When I prayed about this decision, I was really surprised to feel a strong calling instead to be a brother. Then it all made sense: as a Jesuit brother I could live in a religious community, stand for something bigger than my own ambition, but still contribute with the talents that I had.

You seem to have had an abiding interest in astronomy from the beginning. Where did it come from? Your family? Tell us about your family.

I was born at the beginning of the Space Age. I started school the year that Sputnik was launched, I finished high school the year that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. My father was interested in the stars from his youth, and had learned practical navigation stars during World War 2 when he was in the Army Air Corps. So, yes, my family played an important role in my love of astronomy.

I grew up in Michigan and we spent our summers along the shores of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes, far from city lights. There I learned the names of the brighter stars and the constellations.

My knowledge of astronomy only adds to my human love of the sky and my appreciation of God’s creation. When I go outside at night and see the stars in a dome overhead I experience the same sense of awe as anyone else.

Both my parents were university educated. My father was a journalist and my mother a school teacher. Even my immigrant grandfather had gone to Boston University and earned a law degree. Likewise, my sister and brother (both older than me) have earned master’s degrees. So getting an education was something expected, and valued in our family, and my father supported me up until the time when NASA grants could pay for the last years of my graduate work.

This is just curiosity. Most of us – like the poets who loved nature – have romantic notions of the sky, the moon, and the stars. Would the scientific knowledge of astronomers make them think of such notions as nonsense? 

My knowledge of astronomy only adds to my human love of the sky and my appreciation of God’s creation. When I go outside at night and see the stars in a dome overhead I experience the same sense of awe as anyone else.

But then I begin to pick out old friends among the stars, stars that I have seen since I was a child. I know them by name; I know their stories, not only the stories of mythology that tie me to my ancestors but also the stories of where I was at a certain time in my life where seeing one constellation or another had a special, personal meaning. I remember my father teaching me the Summer Triangle; having my homesickness cured by seeing the constellation Leo overhead from Africa (and, later, seeing it upside-down from New Zealand). Recalling how Betelgeuse dimmed dramatically one year. So the stars have a particular personal meaning.

The problems of climate change have been obvious to us in the planetary sciences for nearly two centuries, and certainly since we understood the role that carbon dioxide plays in the climate of Venus and Mars.

Even more than that, though, I can see them as places that I have actually studied and published papers about. Jupiter and its moons as seen through a telescope are remarkable not only because they look wonderful, or because they launched Galileo’s career, but also because they were the subject of my first scientific papers. I know the Orion Nebula not only as a wonderful spot in my telescope but as the source of new stars. I see the double star Alberio and recall how my first sight of it led to me writing a whole book on how to observe the stars with a small telescope.

So you can see, all the knowledge I have about these stars does not dim their beauty but it gives that beauty an extra dimension. Not only is Orion beautiful; so are the memories it invokes, and so is the science of what I have learned about it.

How does your work as an astronomer affect your religious faith and vice versa?

How do I see these stars as a person of faith? God made them. He made them logically; and he made them beautiful. In that way I have come to know God even more, by seeing how His logic works, to see how He loves beauty. The message of Psalm 8 is only made stronger by knowing how big and how old this universe is.

What are the responsibilities and challenges of the Director of the Vatican Observatory? 

The mission of the Vatican Observatory, as stated by Pope Leo XIII when he founded the observatory in 1891, is to show the world that the Church supports science. As the director, then, I have to help our staff fulfill both roles: to do good science, and to show the world. 

I am responsible for seeing that the dozen Jesuit brothers and priests – plus our diocesan collaborators – have the resources and opportunities they need to do their work. That ranges from seeing that they have adequate office space and computer resources, to helping them organize workshops, to encouraging them to travel  – when we could, outside of Covid – to meetings and to visit with collaborators… to keeping our telescope in Arizona up and running at its best. A lot of that work means fundraising for our Vatican Observatory Foundation, which supports much of our work. Finding money is always a challenge!

I am also responsible for serving as a public face for the Observatory and its work. I do dozens of interviews every year, write articles for magazines, write the occasional book, appear on radio and television and even, sometimes, in films. I also help other members of our staff present our work in their own countries, in their own languages.

It is also my task to find and encourage young Jesuits in formation now who might be interested in joining the Observatory at some future date.

As an astronomer, how did you see the COP26 at Glasgow, Scotland on 31 October – 12 November 2021? Are you happy with what it managed to achieve? 

The problems of climate change have been obvious to us in the planetary sciences for nearly two centuries, and certainly since we understood the role that carbon dioxide plays in the climate of Venus and Mars. On the one hand, I am heartened that world leaders are finally taking this seriously. But I know that real change will only occur when everyone does their small part; that in the whole will make a much larger effect than any decree no matter how well-written.

But, as Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si’, the abuse of our planet is an expression of human sinfulness, and that has been with us since the Original Sin. That means that we should never expect to have this problem “solved” in the sense that we won’t have to think about it anymore. Human folly and greed are eternal.

Are other planets free from the impact of human folly and greed?

Why should they be? If there are creatures — creations of God — with intelligence on other planets, their souls will be given the same gifts of intellect and free will. Thus they will have the freedom to love God and His works, or to sin against them. That is true no matter how many eyes or tentacles they have!

Pope Francis is a fellow Jesuit who lives close to you. What do you think of him? Do you get to interact with him? Does he visit the  Vatican Observatory?  

He is a wonderful man and a great friend of the Observatory. Of course, the director before me, Fr. José Funes, was himself a Jesuit from Argentina and so he had lived in the same community as the Pope many years earlier. Pope Francis actually came and had lunch with us during his first year as Pope, and in the summer of 2019 he invited all of our staff to come and visit with him in the Vatican. We had no agenda, just a time to chat and tell stories among ourselves.