Vatican Observatory to Reopen Summer School for Aspiring Astronomers

Started in 1986, the program has historically given students the opportunity to dive into astronomy while also experiencing Italian culture.

Students from the Vatican Observatory's summer school at an audience with Pope Francis.
Students from the Vatican Observatory's summer school at an audience with Pope Francis. (photo: Courtesy photo / EWTN News Nightly segment)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican Observatory will resume its four-week summer school next June following a pause in operations due to the global pandemic— allowing aspiring astronomers and astrophysicists to get firsthand experience within the field of astronomy.

EWTN News Nightly recently spoke with Chris Graney, astronomer and science historian with the Vatican Observatory, about the origins of the summer school, the kinds of experiences that are offered in the program, and the diverse makeup of the student body. Located in Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, the program has historically given students the opportunity deep dive into astronomy while also experiencing Italian culture in the process.

“The Vatican Observatory summer school was started back in 1986 under the then-director Father George Coyne, who was director from most of the time during the papacy of Pope John Paul II,” Graney explained.  

Father Coyne, along with astronomer Father Martin McCarthy, conceived of the idea of a summer school for higher education students considering careers in either astronomy or astrophysics.

Graney explained that the topics covered in the summer school change from year to year.

“For example, different topics have been galaxies or star clusters, water in the solar system,” Graney said. “This summer school is big on learning [about] the universe through Big Data, so that's the focus this year.” 

Graney also spoke about some of the program‘s highlights in past years, including trips to Rome’s historical sites, and the chance to observe astronomical phenomena. One particularly memorable year, students happened to be in session during the transit of Venus across the sun. The school offers a mix of lecture-based and interaction-based learning, Graney explained.

Students at the Vatican Observatory's summer school. EWTN News Nightly Segment

Students at the Vatican Observatory's summer school. EWTN News Nightly Segment

During the interview, Graney discussed recent images released from the James Webb telescope and talked about the interesting connection that the telescope has with the Vatican Observatory summer school.

“A couple of the scientists who are involved in making those infrared cameras that are on that telescope — George and Marcia Reiki — were formerly instructors at … the Vatican Observatory summer school,” Graney explained. “This telescope is going to let us see all kinds of things we have not yet learned, especially insofar as looking back to the very early Universe.”

French founder of the Communaute de l'Arche (Arch community) Jean Vanier gestures during a press conference in central London on March 11, 2015, in which he was announced as the winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize.

New Report Details Abuses of L’Arche Founder Jean Vanier

Composed of six researchers from different backgrounds, the independent commission sought to understand the context and sectarian mechanisms that enabled Vanier, as a great spiritual figure, to use his power to take advantage of young women.