Pope Francis’ official astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno S.J., is visiting the United States from the Vatican Observatory for the total solar eclipse.
A Jesuit like Pope Francis, the Detroit native directs the Vatican Observatory outside Rome and is an expert in asteroids and meteorites. TIME spoke with him on Thursday after he arrived in the place of greatest totality, Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The local Catholic church there, Saints Peter and Paul, is hosting him for the event.
There is much to experience in the eclipse even if you cannot see, he says. The eclipse “reminds us of the immense beauty in the universe that occurs outside of our own petty set of concerns,” Consolmagno says. “When everyone has forgotten the generals and the politicians and the pop stars, the universe remains, and the universe overshadows them all.”
What are your plans for watching the eclipse?
The day of the eclipse itself, I’m staying with a parishioner who is way out in the countryside, and we plan to sit out in lawn chairs, sip drinks, and just enjoy ourselves.
Do you know what Pope Francis thinks of this eclipse?
I have no idea, because of course it is an American event. It is not a European event. Nobody in Europe really, except the astronomers, even is aware that is happening. Nor should they be because it is going to be nighttime there.
Is there a spiritual dimension to the eclipse?
Yes, there is. It is simply that it reminds us of the immense beauty in the universe that occurs outside of our own petty set of concerns. It pulls us out of ourselves and makes us remember that we are part of a big and glorious and beautiful universe.
What do you learn about God watching the eclipse?
God could have made the universe in lots of different ways. God chose to make a universe that was rational, so that we could predict these eclipses with enormous precision, and at the same time beautiful, so it is not only that the eclipse occurs just when it is supposed to, but that, along with the delight that our calculations are right, there is the delight at seeing the beauty that comes, that we can experience, while we are underneath this eclipse.
How do you understand meaning in a moment like this?
Meaning is not an answer to a question. Meaning is coming up with better questions. There are so many different ways of spiritually approaching life, many different traditions. Start with whatever tradition is yours, and ask yourself, what questions does this evoke in you? And just ponder those questions in your heart. I am reminded of how we are told Mary understood the child Jesus that she was raising. She didn’t write a textbook on Christology. We are told in Luke’s gospel that she would ponder these things in her heart. And simply to take the time to ponder is not something that we take the time to do.
The eclipse is interrupting a very political tense time in this country. How might that be instructive, to observe the eclipse in this context?
It put things into a context. Most people forget it was 48 years ago this week that Woodstock occurred. And Woodstock occurred at a time of enormous political upheaval in America that dwarfs what is happening now. We were involved in a terrible war. The only thing that people really remember of 1969 was landing on the moon. And rightly so, I suspect, when everyone has forgotten the generals and the politicians and the pop stars, the universe remains, and the universe overshadows them all.
Are there any Catholic traditions or papal histories about eclipses?
Popes have been impressed by eclipse in the past. One of the popes in the early 19th century was shown an eclipse visible from Rome by an astronomer who then got the papal support to found a predecessor to the Vatican Observatory. The great thing about an eclipse is that anybody can see it you. You don’t need a telescope, you don’t need an education, you don’t need to be told what it is you are looking at. Anyone who experiences it, anyone who is there under the shadow of the moon will experience the eclipse. From that, we are all under the same sky. We are all experiencing the same thing, whether we are left or right, or how we voted, or what kind of music we listen to. That sense of common joy is something that can both pull us together and also encourage us to then want to learn more. It is a great common experience that nobody pays for and nobody can own.
How would you recommend that people observe the eclipse?
Safely! What you will see will depend on where you are, which is also a lot of fun because it means that everyone will see the eclipse in slightly different way. The simplest rule about observing the sun is, if it hurts, don’t do it. The temptation is stare at the sun hoping you will see something but that hurts your eyes. But during a total eclipse itself, when it doesn’t hurt, then you look, and it is glorious to see.
What would you say to people who don’t get to see the eclipse, or whose experience is interrupted or less than all that they’d hoped for?
The last time I tried to see an eclipse was 18 years ago, and the clouds gathered and it rained right during the time of totality. I missed seeing the spectacular part, but it was still a memorable event. That sense of darkness, the coldness, the reactions of the birds and other animals who were suddenly puzzled thinking it was nighttime, and the general eerie color to the light that still gets through the clouds. All of that is still a fascinating experience even if you don’t get to see the sun itself. So appreciate whatever experience you have and remember that your experience is going to be different from anyone else’s. You don’t even have to be able to see to appreciate it, you can able to feel the difference in temperature, you can hear the difference in the animals and the birds.