Pope Francis’s call to take Catholic teaching to far-flung corners of the world has been compared by the Vatican’s chief astronomer to a Star Trek mission.
Father Jose Gabriel Funes, an accomplished astronomer and self-confessed “Trekkie”, has likened Pope Francis’s push to extend the reach of Catholic preaching to Captain Kirk’s famous mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper, Father Funes said he had been impressed by the Pope’s homily to a group of Jesuits in Rome on 31 July in which he urged priests to “go to the peripheries, so many peripheries”.
Since being elected pope in March, Francis has shaken up the Vatican’s staid image by washing the feet of Muslim women, preaching to millions in Brazil and visiting the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa to meet migrants after they had made the dangerous sea crossing from Africa.
Father Funes – who, like Francis, is a Jesuit – said the pope’s call to Catholic priests to get out of their churches and take their message to the real world was also a clear message to the Vatican’s team of astronomers, based at the papal summer retreat Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.
Father Funes wrote: “The mission of the Vatican Observatory is part of this movement towards the furthest peripheries, the final frontier – if we can put it like that – because our mission is about the universe.
“We go far away because we study the most distant galaxies, but we also go back, because we scientifically explore the beginnings of the universe.”
The Vatican’s centuries-old interest in astronomy was linked to its need to fix the dates for holy days. The Gregorian calendar used today was developed by a Jesuit and set down in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII.
Father Funes has run the Observatory since 2006 and has published papers with titles including Circumnuclear Keplerian Disks in Galaxies and Dark Matter in Early-Type Spiral Galaxies. He said he had grown up watching Star Trek and considered the Observatory’s mission as identical to Captain Kirk’s mission – restated at the start of each episode – “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations”.
Father Funes said he preferred Star Trek films to Star Wars, and had loved the latest cinematic episode in the franchise, Star Trek: Into Darkness, which features a genetically-engineered superhuman being awakened from 300 years of suspended animation.
In a 2008 interview, Father Funes said he believed extraterrestrial life could exist, referring to aliens as man’s “extraterrestrial brothers”.
The presence of aliens would not contradict Church teaching, he added, claiming that they might even be “free from original sin” and “in full friendship with their creator”.
In his L’Osservatore Romano piece, Father Funes wrote: “In his homily to the Jesuits, the Holy Father also recommended we resist the temptation to think we are at the centre.
“Even if Francis was not talking in a cosmological sense, it is worth remembering that we are the third planet from the Sun, that we are on the outskirts of our galaxy … one among 100 billion galaxies, each of which has a billion stars and planets.”