Those who pray the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours know that the Canticle of Daniel is prayed often throughout the year for morning prayer. It is used for all feasts and solemnities, as well as the first Sunday in the four-week Psalm cycle. The theme of this Canticle is “Let all creatures praise the Lord.”
As part of this Canticle, we pray: “Sun and moon, bless the Lord. Stars of heaven, bless the Lord.”
Now, it is true that God’s creation is impressive. We look around here on earth and still have not plumbed the depth of the great complexity, harmony and beauty we see around us. But I think that, when we look up at the sky at night, we realize exactly how vast and awe-inspiring is God’s creation. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands” (Psalm 19).
According to National Maritime Museum in London, the universe is made up of 100 billion galaxies that contain a total of 70 thousand million million million stars. That’s a lot of stars!
Then, of course, there are the vast distances between stars. The sun is 93 million miles from Earth. Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to our Sun; it’s “only” 4.3 light years away. That is, it takes 4.3 years for the light from that star, traveling at 186,282 miles per second, to get here. That makes it a mere 25.284 million million miles away.
I find it interesting that the Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world and the only research group directly supported by the Holy See. Its operation is left to the Society of Jesus. Astronomy was part of the original seven subjects taught at the medieval universities founded by the Church.
Direct Vatican support for astronomy dates to 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII asked Jesuit mathematician Christopher Clavius to help reform the calendar. During the next 300 years, the papacy founded three observatories in Rome. In the mid 1800s, the Jesuit Angelo Secchi became the first astronomer to classify stars by their spectra. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII formally re-founded the Vatican Observatory and moved it to a hillside behind the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
In 1933, the glare of Rome’s night sky caused the observatory to be moved 22 miles to the southeast, to Castel Gandolfo. Due to the lights of Rome, in 1981, the Vatican Observatory Research Group was founded in Tucson, Ariz. In collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, the Jesuits built the 70-inch Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mount Graham, 75 miles northeast of Tucson. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer, said in an interview: “It’s part of our philosophy that God reveals himself through creation, and studying creation in a scientific way is a way of coming closer to God.”
One Jesuit astronomer, Father George Coyne, applied for NASA’s astronaut program in the mid 1960s but was rejected because he lacked eagle-eye vision. That’s too bad, because I would really like to see the first Mass offered in space. Franciscan Father James McCurry not long ago offered the first Mass on the continent of Antarctica while taking part in an expedition. It’s said some penguins were in attendance.
Why not Mass on the space station? Or at the very least, why not lead a worldwide, ecumenical prayer service from there — perhaps using the Canticle of Daniel? Or perhaps we need a group of Catholic monks living and praying on the space station, like Moses on top of Mount Sinai.
Then again, as incalculable and far-flung as the cosmos is, God is never farther away than a prayer. Now there’s a thought that brings the vastness of space down to size.
Brother John Raymond is co-founder of the Monks of Adoration in Venice, Florida.