A Hobby for the Heavens
Often people ask me what I enjoy doing for a hobby. Well, first I'm a geek and I love to do podcasts, manage my web site, go camping, and much more. But one hobby has a lot of relevance to me as a priest. That hobby? Astronomy. I'm a member of the Rose City Astronomers and I love to peer into the heavens with my 14.5" dobsonian reflector (below). Each summer I love to travel out to the Ochoco National Forest to join some 700 other amateur astronomers and gaze heavenward to view things that simply take my breath away. So how does astronomy connect with being a priest? Well, astronomy offers me a way to directly connect with how big God's creation is and how small I am. Yet, in spite of the radically disproportionate sizes of these two creations, God still loves me with an infinite love.
But, what is the Catholic Church doing meddling in astronomy? Haven't we learned our lesson from the Galileo debacle? The answer to these questions are, simply, we are doing amazing work in astronomy and Galileo has helped us learn about the political pitfalls that can happen when religion and science mix. Today, we are more eager than ever to learn how both faith and science harmonize. It also is a dramatic way to literally view history unfold. For example, when I see a celestial object that is 25 light-years away, that means I am seeing that object as it was 25 years ago. Now imagine seeing an object that is 2000 light-years away! I would be seeing existence as it was when Jesus walked the earth.
Catholics in Astronomy
Many priests are professional astronomers. Indeed, it was a priest who was the first to posit what is now called the "big bang" (Can you say Fr. Georges-Henri Lemaitre?). In fact, the father of astrophysics is a Jesuit, Fr. Angelo Secchi. The Vatican even owns and operates two major observatories, one at Castle Gondolfo, Italy and the other in Tucson, Arizona. In a nearby parish in Porltand, St. Agatha, a group of Catholics meet monthly to discuss Astronomy. They also use the internet to speak to Fr. Chris Corbally, S.J. who is the director of the Vatican Observatory. When ever the topic of Galileo comes up, it is the Church who always gets the black eye, so-to-speak. The Vatican Observatory has spent no small amount of energy reflecting on the universe and the theories of Galileo. Check out the publications about it by clicking here. In 2000, Guy Consolmagno, S.J. published a popular book describing the adventures of being a Vatican scientist entitled, "Brother Astronomer." The science of astronomy helps us know more about the creation that God has made. It reminds us that God is more than big and more than powerful. Imagine if we found intelligent life beyond our solar system. What would that mean for us as faithful Christians?
Star Party Ho!
Earlier I mentioned that each summer I travel to the Ochoco National Forest east of Bend, OR to join hundreds of others stargazing. Each year, that event, the Oregon Star Party, offers me a chance to stay up all night and quietly observe objects that I simply cannot see from my home with all its light pollution. The location is actually called Indian Trail Spring, and it is in the middle of nowhere. But, it has some wonderfully dark skies through which I can gaze upon objects that are millions of light years away. At the OSP, people bring some of the largest personally owned telescopes in the world. The great part is that many of these folks just love to let others peer through their scope. Exclamations such as "Wow" or "You've gotta see this!" are not uncommon. So I look forward to this summer's big event on Aug. 27th through Aug. 31st. My goal is to catalog as many galaxies I can. Another is to drink as much hot chocolate that I can in order to keep warm during the cold nights and help me stay awake in order to maximize my viewing opportunities. This year will be my fourth OSP and my second with my Chalet Aspen trailer. Since the event is so remote, it is important to be prepared. Bringing the Chalet is a real comfort, especially on cold or rainy nights. OSP is just a week away as of this writing. I can't wait. Astronomy is a prayerful and awe-inspiring experience.
If you are a budding amateur astronomer or are just curious, I recommend two books: Secrets of the Night Sky by Bob Berman and Night Watch by Terence Dickinson. Be careful, as you may be tempted to go out a buy a telescope. So let me offer you a bit of advice. Before you go out and plot down some hard earned cash for a new scope, first try using binoculars. It's amazing the things one can see with a simple pair of 10X50 binoculars. There are tons of things one can see wihout the aid of a telescope let alone binoculars. Inded, there's lots to behold by just looking up. For example, the International Space Station is a wonderful object to find when it passes overhead. One can determine when its visible by going to the NASA web site for the ISS. It's Summer. Next dark night, go lay out on your lawn and just gaze heavenward. You might just discover something new! You might even perceive God's presence in his handiwork. Afterall, the Scriptures tell us that "the heavens proclaim the glory of God" (Psalm 19:2).
Blessings in Christ,
Fr. William Holtzinger