Friday 26 March 2021

Science, the Universe and the Jesuits

As many of you would know, the engagement of Jesuits with the study of the various sciences has been part of the mission of the Society of Jesus from our earliest decades. One of the best known Jesuit scientists from that time was Fr Christopher Clavius SJ. He was born in 1538 and joined the Jesuits in 1555, the year before St Ignatius died. Fr Clavius was a gifted mathematician and astronomer who was influential in ensuring that the earliest Jesuit schools taught a robust and challenging Mathematical curriculum. He used his mathematical knowledge to reform the calendar that was in use at the time, resulting in all the Catholic countries adopting his ideas in 1582 following the decree of Pope Gregory XIII. This innovation became known as the Gregorian calendar and it remains in use by the world today.

As an astronomer, Fr Clavius’ contribution is a reflection of the debate and dispute of his time. He lived in the years following the death of Nicholas Copernicus. He did not agree with Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, that is, the earth rotated around the sun; in contrast Clavius’ worldview was a geocentric one, in which the earth was the centre of the universe. This view had been the prevailing wisdom for 1500 years, having been articulated originally by Aristotle in ancient Greece and Ptolemy in ancient Egypt. There was much ongoing debate about this issue in the 1600s and as history has unfolded, and humanity’s astronomical knowledge expanded, we have come to know that Copernicus’ new way of understanding the earth, the sun and the universe was correct.

Fr Clavius was a gifted astronomer and throughout his life he studied the moon, the stars and the galaxies using telescopes. He was held in great respect by Galileo who was in regular correspondence with him. One of the large craters on the moon is named after him, acknowledging his contribution to the sciences, and especially astronomy. The Jesuit contribution to astronomy over the last 400 years has been so significant that there are 32 craters on the moon that are named after Jesuit scientists.

This history may help explain why we have an observatory along with a functioning seismograph station on the College property. As a student in the 1980s, I remember looking at Jupiter, Neptune and Saturn through the telescope as well as watching Halley’s Comet in 1986. The Riverview Observatory was established in 1909 by Father Edward Pigot SJ with the opening of a seismological station. Fr Pigot was born in 1858, just outside of Dublin in Ireland. He originally studied Arts and Medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, and some years later joined the Jesuits in 1885. He did not enjoy good health and was sent to Australia to teach as part of his Jesuit formation, including spending a number of years at Riverview in the late 1880s and early 1890s. He returned to Europe to finish his theological studies and then following ordination volunteered for the China mission. He eventually came to Sydney in 1907, again suffering from ill health.

Last week, I was delighted to host Mr Tomas Ferko, the Ambassador of the Slovak Republic. Mr Russell Newman, the Deputy Principal Teaching and Learning, and Mr Bob Marsh, Manager of the Riverview Observatory, were wonderful co-hosts with me. Ambassador Ferko wanted to visit the College as he was aware that on 23 May 1911 Milan Rastislav Stefanik, a Slovakian scientist, statesman and politician had visited the College – in particular the Observatory – upon his return from having witnessed, with Fr Pigot, the solar eclipse in Tonga on 29 April 1911. It was a great joy to be able to meet with the Ambassador and explore and celebrate a connection established 110 years ago between our College and Mr Stefanik. The Ambassador informed us that “Mr Stefanik has been recognised and celebrated as a national hero for his role in the history of Slovakia”. Moreover, this connection emanates from a love of science, in particular astronomy, and connects us directly to the first years of our College’s Observatory. As a Jesuit priest who lived in Europe, Asia and Australia and who sought to use his intellectual gifts and love of God to come to a deeper understanding of the gift of the universe, Fr Pigot was walking in the footsteps of Fr Christopher Clavius and other great Jesuit scientists including Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, who is the Director of the Vatican Observatory today. Br Consolmagno is a planetary scientist who has studied meteorites and asteroids; he, along with other astronomers, are helping humanity come to a deeper understanding of a universe that continues to reveal itself to us, in all of its beauty and mystery, expressing the love and creativity of our God.

Wishing you every blessing.

Fr Tom Renshaw