Priests find comfort that in studying the universe, they come closer to God

By Dennis Sadowski

Ariz. (CNS) — For a long time, Father Timothy Martinez felt alone.

Not so much
in his priesthood and his responsibilities as pastor of Risen Savior Parish in Albuquerque, New Mexico,
but because of his passion for astronomy and his concern about the media-driven
divide between religion and science.

He wondered
how the two be could be shown to be complementary and share with his
parishioners ways they can appreciate creation by knowing a little more about
the universe.

Then he
attended the Vatican Observatory’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop in 2015 and was
back again for this year’s session Jan. 11-15 in the Arizona desert near Tucson
with his Celestron 11-inch
reflector telescope in tow. Father Martinez is not feeling so alone anymore.

confirmation that I’m not crazy,” he said during a morning small group
discussion near the end of the workshop. “That’s important to say. This is
part of pastoral ministry … to help people reach holiness.”

The priest
was among 14 clergymen (of a total of 25 people in attendance) at this year’s workshop
at the Redemptorist Renewal
Center. Jesuit Brother
Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Observatory director, said the weeklong gathering
was designed to help parish leaders, educators and interested laypeople know
that there are many like believers and that they can demonstrate in their
ministries that faith and science do not have to be at odds.

For Father
Martinez, 52, studying the heavens and reading up on the latest astronomical
discoveries gives meaning to his existence.

we can touch, we can explore isn’t anything less than touching, exploring
aspects of God, what God’s up to. It deepens my understanding of what I’m doing
in the world,” he told Catholic News Service.

universe) is a giant statement of God, of grace, love, God’s unbounded
generosity in creation itself. If I’m going to learn about God, then that’s how
I’m going to learn,” he added.

Like Father
Martinez, most of the priests at the workshop have long had an interest in
astronomy. For some, their interest dates from childhood when they would look
in wonder at the stars. Some had telescopes growing up and have graduated to
bigger instruments today. Others were encouraged to pursue studies in the
sciences by teachers, parents or other influential adults — some even after
they committed to their vocation.

observing the universe, the priests said they have grown in their appreciation
and awe of creation. Coming out of the workshop, they said they feel they can
more readily address the faith-science gap and hopefully inspire their

me, there’s not just a material appreciation for creation, but a really
spiritual appreciation,” said Father
James Kurzynski, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin,
and a contributor to the Vatican Observatory’s Catholic Astronomer blog.

about seeing the world almost as a bit of an icon and that preferential heart
of iconography of spirituality, that if I can look at an icon of Jesus Christ
and reverence not as Jesus himself, but as a bridge that bring me closer to
Jesus, there’s that iconic nature of creation as well,” he said.

Father Tim Nondorf, pastor of St.
Clare Parish in Roseville, California, suggested that knowing God better
can happen simply by studying creation.

answers two questions in our world: Who am I and why am I here. Science answers
two questions in our world: What happened and how did it happen,” Father
Nondorf said. “When we can answer or use the tools to answer those four
questions, we develop a more complete view of our world, of God and our
relationships. When we limit ourselves to just religion or just to science, we
limit our understanding.”

The priests
are all too aware of the apparent conflicts between faith and science. They say
they have experienced the feeling among parishioners that science poses a
threat to religion because it discounts faith, and that if people readily accept
theories on the birth and evolution of the universe or the rise of life on
Earth they are abandoning God.

don’t want to have their understanding of the Bible challenged by science
because they’re afraid of where that might lead,” said Father Bill Menzel, a retired
priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, a workshop attendee.

For Father
Menzel and the other priests at the workshop, however, there is no conflict.

Both faith
and science allow people to contemplate the mysteries and uncertainty that
surround life, they said, and open ways to encounter God.

how far does it (the universe) go, and how old is everything? What do we know
and what don’t we know? These mysteries are formative,” said Father Christopher Zerucha, 32,
parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Painesville, Ohio.

explained how he was eager to integrate what he learned into his work across
the multicultural parish, particularly among young people.

Father Christopher Singer, chancellor of
the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, began to understand that studying
science and accepting scientific discoveries did not compromise faith values as
a student at Gannon University. He recalled professors in his astronomy and
physics classes who were deeply spiritual and faithful to God.

realization prompted him to ask deeper questions about God’s purpose for his
life while exploring creation and better understand that the theories about the
origins of the universe do not conflict with traditional teachings of the
Catholic faith.

Catholic tradition faith and reason have been partners, cooperators from the very
beginning,” he said.

The priests
exchanged ideas on taking what they experienced at the workshop to their
parishes, schools, fellow priests and bishops and even into their local
communities. Ideas included Bible studies that incorporate the heavens,
presentations at programs such as Theology on Tap, telescope nights on parish
grounds and thoughtful homilies that inspire parishioners to expand their views
beyond a limited understanding of the world around them.

Father Bryan Reif, pastor,
and Deacon Robert Schroeder,
of St. Antoninus Parish
in Cincinnati, have integrated astronomy into parish life, largely through
monthly observing nights for parents and students at the parish school.

The gatherings
began in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, after the school was one of
several recipients of a telescope under a program through a local museum.
Deacon Schroeder has found that the nights have opened the door for
conversations on faith and science.

For Father
Reif, studying the heavens allows him to “tap into the gifts of the Holy Spirit”
and hopefully inspire parishioners to do the same.

that God has created all of this and you can use a telescope to see the things
to see beyond the physical sight in the universe,” he said. “It’s so
immense (and) in the midst of all of that immensity all of which is willed and
kept in being by God’s willingness, he wants to have a personal relationship with

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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