This Across the Universe column first appeared in The Tablet in January, 2019, talking about the workshop that we run every other year (except for Covid); the current workshop, now called ACME, is happening next week!
Immersed in astronomy
The idea came out of the blue. A diocesan priest from rural Wisconsin, Fr. James Kurzynski, wrote to ask: did the Vatican Observatory run workshops on astronomy for parish priests? No, I replied. But we ought to. Thus our biennial Faith and Astronomy Workshop [now called Astronomy for Catholics in Ministry and Education] was born. We’ve just concluded our fourth one [as of when this was published].
What sort of workshop was he actually looking for? Who should attend? What should they do? With other members of the Vatican Observatory and, most importantly, Fr. James himself, the idea took shape. First the basics: start Monday, end Friday, when the weather in Tucson is not blazing hot and parish priests aren’t overwhelmed with work at home. That meant January. Limit the numbers to two dozen or so, open to anyone who is an educator in a Catholic setting. And finally, keep the “work” in “workshop”: make them come up with the answers… and questions.
To lure in our participants we start with some false advertising: “What can modern astronomy tell us about creation and the Creator?” It’s a good question. But we never attempt to answer it. Instead, our real goal is to teach the teachers about what astronomy actually is… how astronomers work and think. Anyone can read an astronomy web site — there are plenty of them — but none of them look quite the same once you have lived with the astronomers in their native habitat for a few days. With that experience, the teachers themselves can work out their own understanding.
We invite speakers from the local astronomical community to share with us their latest data about galaxies, or teach us to handle meteorites. We visit the places where telescope mirrors are made, and spacecraft are guided around asteroids. (The 2019 workshop featured a trip to the “Biosphere 2”, now a research outpost of the University of Arizona, where we learned about its magnificent failure to reproduce a full Earth eco-system and what that means both to future space travelers and for life on our own delicate eco-system, planet Earth.) And we spend time at night looking through good amateur telescopes into the dark Arizona skies… and praying under the stars.
An important element to the workshop, to my mind, is learning more about the history of astronomy. When we see how astronomical ideas used to be understood, and misunderstood, we can appreciate the Church’s role for good and ill (it’s done both), and how clever we aren’t today in our modern understanding.
The participants soon realize that the nebulous concept of “faith and astronomy” involves some classic, if ultimately unanswerable, questions. How does God act in the universe? What is science? (What is theology, for that matter?) And why do we do this? Why does it matter? Why do we care?
For surely, we do care. Astronomy fascinates everyone, from the villagers I met in my Peace Corps days in Africa, to the cynical teenagers I once taught in New York City. It confronts you with the immensity of reality, where there must be a God… but how could He ever notice me? (See Psalm 8!) It confounds your common sense (black holes? dark energy? dark matter?) even as it seduces you with its breathless beauty. It pulls you out of your comfortable cocoon, and forces you to unfold wings you never knew you had.
Through it all, we are reminded that astronomy is not about stars and planets. It is about human beings; and our feeble, fun, leaps of the imagination stretching to grasp God’s universe.