Reflections on the passing of Fr. George Coyne

I am back now from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY, where the funeral of Fr. George Coyne was held on Monday.

First, I thought I would share here a couple of items that showed the respect Fr. Coyne had both in the world at large and at Le Moyne College. To begin, here’s a copy of the obituary as run in the Sunday New York Times on February 16:

While I was at Le Moyne, I was given a tour of the science building and found that George was mentioned both on their “wall of Jesuit sciences” and on a large poster in a passageway between buildings on campus:

Wall of Jesuit scientists… including a couple of familiar faces

Finally, two more items I want to publish here are a cleaned-up version of the comments that I was invited to give at the funeral, and the remarks that the president of Le Moyne, Dr. Linda LeMura

Reflections on the life of a Jesuit Astronomer, Br Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Observatory

First reading, Proverbs 8, 22-31
Psalm: Psalm 8
Second Reading, Romans 8, 18-27
Gospel: Matthew 19, 13 – 29

The New York Times ran an obituary of Father George Coyne last Sunday, and they emphasized his activities to support Galileo and evolution in the Church. But when I wrote about him for the L’Osservatore Romano, I didn’t even mention those things. I’d completely forgotten about that episode, to be honest. There was so much more to say.

I could list all his scientific work, his writings on faith and science, his honors and degrees. That would take about twenty minutes… if I read fast. But none of those are George.

I knew George long before he knew me: I knew George from listening to his homilies at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, in Tucson. I was a grad student at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab in the 1970s, when George was a young professor there.

The Lunar Lab was a wildly dysfunctional place in those days, with lots of infighting among the faculty, and I was living in a house with other grad students working for the various feuding professors. We would keep each other posted on what was going on in the department; and my contribution was to take the temperature of the fighting based on what George had preached on that morning!

Eventually the other astronomers agreed to have George become the director of the Catalina Observatory, even though he was junior to all the rest of them. He was the only one that they all trusted. And liked.

Father Chris Corbally, another astronomer at Vatican Observatory, knew George even longer than I did. The first reading from Proverbs 8, 22-31 was his idea; as it describes Wisdom, it also describes George’s relation to creation:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
when there were no springs overflowing with water;
before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,
before he made the world or its fields
or any of the dust of the earth.
I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.

George, too, would take in all the marvels of creation, at God’s side observing it all, “filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” Not only rejoicing in the world; but delighting in humankind.

People liked George because he liked people. (I’ll be honest, I knew some people who didn’t like him; they were generally people who didn’t like themselves, either.) He completely disarmed the Richard Dawkinses of the world who tried to debate him because they were not prepared for someone who wasn’t mad at them, who didn’t want to argue at them. He honestly wanted to learn from them and hear what they had to say. If he would argue — and he was not afraid to do so — it would be with, not against.

That trait was a part of his scientific life and also his Jesuit life. We hear in Matthew’s gospel (19, 13 – 29) the famous story of the rich young man who wants to know, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” He’s taken aback by the answer he hears. It’s not enough to follow the commandments, to just do what we’re expected to do. Rather we have to be ready to give up all our other possessions, “all our liberty, our memory, our understanding, and our entire will, all you have and call your own.”

Give up your understanding? Yes, indeed. That’s what a scientist does; you have to be willing to give up being satisfied with the way you understand something, in order to understand it in a new and deeper way.

For the sake of their gloroius obsession with science, like George many scientists (including those who live celibacy even if they haven’t vowed it) have given up “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields” — how many Jesuit scholars have been willing to give up their fields! — only to receive “a hundred times as much and… eternal life.”

In fact that passage about the rich man in Matthew is introduced by the episode where people brought little children to Jesus; and when the disciples rebuked them, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

George loved to do baptisms and weddings for the children of his scientist friends; and funerals as well. He was a pastor to astronomers. His secretary in Italy, Rita, married an American telescope engineer (George did the wedding) and when their little girls (George did the baptisms) would visit their mama at work, they would run into George’s office with delighted cries of “paco, paco!” They really were trying to say “capo, capo”, which is the Italian for “boss;” that’s what Rita called him. And George loved it. Those little girls, by the way, are both scientists themselves now.

George was a capo, a boss; and a pastor; and role model and friend to an entire generation of young astronomers on their way to their scientific careers. Every two years another class would come to spend a month with us at our summer schools. I’ve gotten more than a hundred emails from alumni and other colleagues, from every corner of the globe. From him they learned astronomy; but also the joy of learning, and the love of sharing what we’ve learned with each other.

There are three things that George would always tell us. First, his instructions to each of us upon arriving at the Observatory, simply: “do good science.” The science itself was the goal. And he gave us the space to make it happen. But what made science itself a worthy goal?

He would say, “yes, we must feed the hungry and cure the blind; but if that is all we do, then we will all be hungry and we will all be blind.” Our goal in life can’t be just to avoid hunger. Rather, we feed the hungry so that they may live, and that they may live to encounter joy and truth, the markers of God’s presence.

And George would say, “in us, the universe has become self-aware.” Indeed, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading (Romans 8, 18-27), “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Creation could not be revealed until we were ready to receive that revelation. We become the children of God when we become aware of God’s creation and thus, in it, of God’s presence.

The psalmist in Psalm 8 says God of us, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” And what had the psalmist done to earn this crown of glory? It was to “consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place…”

It is by being aware of the universe that we can become aware of the Creator. We, ourselves, creatures of that very same creator, become the consciousness of creation. And in that truth we find joy. That’s where we find God.

That’s what it means to be a scientist, and that’s what it means to be a Jesuit. “Find God in all things.” Find God in the cosmos!

That was George. And that is why we found God in him.

Remarks by Linda LeMura | Le Moyne College President

In 1991, astronomers Carolyn Shoemaker and David Levy discovered a previously unknown body in the asteroid belt, which was officially designated SPK-ID 2014429 (catchy, isn’t it?). It so happens that when astronomers discover something new, they get to give it a real name, and so these two researchers chose to name it after their colleague George Coyne, so formally, the body is asteroid 14429 Coyne. Now, 14429 Coyne, like most asteroids, is unpretentious, unlike those glory-hog planets who grab all of the attention. How appropriate that this heavenly body should carry George’s name through the heavens.

14429 Coyne. Perhaps not particularly poetic, but in the movement of bodies and the vastness of the universe, George saw poetry. George measured time in eons, and distance in terms of cosmic space. And that’s where he found meaning as well. After a lifetime of contemplating the stars and praying to God who inspired them, George Coyne never allowed himself to be distracted and preoccupied by the small, the momentary, the transient. Where the rest of us saw mountains he saw only molehills.

Here’s an example:

On learning of George’s death, Syracuse University physicist Peter Saulson, a member of the team that made the first recording of gravitational waves, sent me a letter of condolence. George had arranged for Dr. Saulson to speak about the groundbreaking discovery by the Laser Gravitational-Wave Observatory (or LIGO) in this very chapel in 2016. In his letter, Peter recalled that on his first meeting with George, he immediately sensed that they were kindred spirits.

In his letter, Peter went on to say: “Twice last fall, George had me over for lunch at the Jesuit residence on campus, and those discussions will remain my fondest memories of him. I treasured our discussions on issues of science and faith. His insights into how to read the books of Teilhard de Chardin will continue to help me in my own thinking. True to his gracious character, George never let on that his days were numbered. Instead, he asked lots of questions about my own life, what I was reading, and the like; he was full of encouragement and optimism. Now that I know what was on his own mind, I regret not being able to offer him informed encouragement and comfort. But I admire him all the more for his kindness and dignity. Thank you very much for giving a home to such a great soul in the final years of a very full life.”

Are any of us surprised that George was more interested in discussing the theology of Teilhard de Chardin rather than his own illness and worry? Doesn’t it seem utterly appropriate that — even while keenly aware of how fleeting his time might be — that he’d be curious about books and ideas, compassionate about others rather than anxious for himself? Perhaps, because he spent a lifetime peering into the heavens, George Coyne was more interested in finally finding the answers to the biggest questions.

I met George for the first time in 2010, when Le Moyne awarded him an honorary degree. And following that meeting, I pursued him relentlessly. How hard could it be, I thought, to convince a world-renowned astronomer, who had lived in Rome and Arizona, to come to Syracuse, New York — home of one of the world’s largest snowplows? Ultimately, he relented (I can be very persuasive), but he promised to stay for at least a short while, if only I would stop hounding him. As George would say: “I can love in the desert and I can love in the snow.” That was eight years ago. George told me more than once that he fell in love with Le Moyne, or as he called us “a learning family.”

In the New York Times, the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of America, the Jesuit magazine, said, “George was one of the pre-eminent figures in the Catholic world who could speak intelligently and articulately about both science and faith. And George, by nature a humble man, could often dazzle.”

And like a shooting star, dazzle us he did. I’m not sure when 14429 Coyne will next pass overhead, but I know that when I look up into the night sky — into that dark sublime — I’ll think of Father George Coyne and thank God for the light he brought to my life and to the lives of our students. Your life has blessed God, George. And may God bless you.

Ci vediamo, il mio fratello. Vi vogliamo bene. Grazie. (We’ll see you around, my brother. We wish you well. Thank you.)