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To the edge of the universe: the Vatican Observatory welcomes Pope Francis

(Vatican Radio) “We announce with joy that Pope Francis has had lunch with the Jesuit community of the Vatican Observatory. We are deeply moved!” This was the first of a series of messages posted on Twitter on Sunday by Jesuit astronomers of Castel Gandolfo – first in Italian and then in English, Spanish and French. The Vatican Observatory has its headquarters in the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, while the Pontifical Palace, directly above the apartment of the Pope, continues to host the domes with telescopes. But the observations for some time have been being made at the new research centre, the Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG), located in the United States, in Tucson, at the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona.

Vatican Radio’s Fausta Speranza spoke with the director of the Vatican Observatory, Father José Gabriel Funes (pictured), about Pope Francis’ visit to one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world.

Father José Gabriel Funes(JF): It was a very beautiful day for the us Jesuits who work at the Vatican Observatory. We greeted the Pope, then we took him to see some of the places we have here at Castel Gandalfo. The Pope saw some ancient books – the most precious ones we have – such as, for example, a copy of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, the Principia of Isaac Newton, and La riforma del calendario gregoriano [“The Reform of the Gregorian Calendar”] and the Tabelle [“The Tables”] of Father Clavio, who took part in that reform. He visited the meteorite laboratory, where he looked in the microscope at a meteorite that had fallen at Buenos Aires. Brother Consolmagno, the curator, had prepared this little surprise. At the end of lunch, the Pope signed the parchment we have with the signatures of all the Popes from Pius XI up to today, to Pope Francis. It was truly very beautiful, and we are very happy.

Fausta Speranza: Father Funes, no one at the Vatican Observatory must have been happier than you to look at the skies with Pope Francis . . .

JFG: Absolutely, absolutely! It was a very beautiful moment, because during lunch we were able to talk about the activities and projects of the Observatory, and then about what we do, about our mission.

FS: What does it mean to look at the skies with the gaze of faith, but also from the scientific point of view?

JFG: This logical or scientific perspective helps even a better religious understanding of the universe; but from the other side, a purely scientific understanding is limited, if it is not open to other modes of understanding, such as philosophic and religious.

FS: Father Funes, Pope Francis at the Vatican Observatory was also a Jesuit among Jesuits?

JFG: Exactly. He was one of our brothers. So it was a double joy: to have the Pope with us, the Jesuit Pope. Then, it was the first time that a Pope had lunch with the Jesuit community of the Observatory: this too was something extraordinary. They’ve told me that during the first year of the Pontificate of John Paul II, after Mass with the community, on the feast of Saint Ignatius, the Pope joined the community of the fathers and stayed for breakfast with the Jesuits and the employees. . . That visit, too, was very familiar. But this was the first time that a Pope had lunch with the community of the Jesuit fathers.

FS: Of the words Pope Francis has said up till now, what teachings have meant the most for your work?

JGF: I think it is that which the Pope has insisted on from the beginning: go to the boundaries, and not only geographical, but also existential [boundaries]. Our mission is part of this going to the farthest boundaries - if I can say it like that - because it has to do with the universe: we go back, in the sense that we also explore the beginning of the universe from the point of view of science, but we also go far away, because we also study the farthest, the most distant galaxies ... And this brings up the questions that we all should ask about the relationship between science and faith. I think this is the mission of the Observatory: go out to the truly most distant boundaries, the boundaries of the universe, that is always a gift of God.