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The pope and the shooting star

Critics of the Roman Catholic Church like to paint the 2,000-year-old first Christian institution as being out-of-step with modern science; such notions today are prejudicial and ill informed. Moral issues as they relate to science and technology aside, the Vatican is very much interested in modern scientific research, especially the field of astronomy.

While critics may cite the Vatican's denouncing of 17th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei as evidence of the church's scientific repression, that's stale news to the pope's 21st-century staff of credentialed clerical astronomers and astrophysicists.

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI kicked off the opening of the Vatican Observatory's new stand-alone digs in Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence near the Eternal City, Rome. The observatory had been located in small quarters on castle property since 1935.

During the week that the new, expanded observatory headquarters opened, the pope spent several hours with papal astronomers learning about black holes, dark matter and the moments immediately following the Big Bang.

For church leaders, there's profound majesty in understanding the our univers is immensely old. For them, there appears to be no challenge to the "Word of God" in accepting the universe as it was created eons ago.

Pope Benedict began the open house with a prayer and blessing for the staff and gathered news crew. A few opening words of greeting were then offered by U.S. Jesuit astronomer Fr. George Coyne, former director of the observatory.

Two years ago, Seeing Stars was kindly granted an interview, via e-mail, with U.S. astronomer and Jesuit Guy Consolmango while he was at work at the Vatican Observatory. We just learned that Brother Consolmango personally greeted the pope at the recent open house and showed him the Vatican's own beautiful specimen of the carbon-rich Nakhla meteorite found in Egypt in 1911. This meteorite is believed to have been blasted off the surface of the planet Mars millions of years ago.

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