Lost in the stars

By Claudia Giampietro

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — I would like to share with you some highlights from my recent trip to Castel Gandolfo, together with the director of my community here at The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas and the board of directors of Georgetown University.

Jesuit Father Paul Mueller (right) gives visitors from Georgetown University and The Lay Centre a tour of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, located outside Rome.

Jesuit Father Paul Mueller (right) gives visitors from Georgetown University and The Lay Centre a tour of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, located outside Rome.

If I say “Volcano Laziale,” many would immediately think of the famous Alban Hills volcano. But, while I’m enjoying the superb view of Lake Albano and the surrounding hills from the terrace of the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, I realize that the real volcano in the region is our guide, a Jesuit, whose personality – in geological terms – is the crystallization of magmas resulting from a deep knowledge of science, philosophy and theology.

A telescope at the Vatican Observatory.

A telescope at the Vatican Observatory.

While listening to Jesuit Father Paul Mueller, superior of the Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory, I find myself trying to stop wondering if he has the gift of omnipresence, as he is responsible for two community residences, one in Castel Gandolfo and one in Tucson, Ariz.

In this building, built on the ruins of vacation homes of Roman emperors – including the first, who systematically persecuted Christians – there are two “vintage” telescopes. Two more telescopes are in the pontifical villas of Castel Gandolfo.

“When I was a kid, with a telescope from the backyard, I saw the Andromeda Galaxy (the nearest galaxy to Earth),” Father Mueller tells us. “I thought it was the whole galaxy, but it was the bright core. The whole galaxy is six times as wide as the sky and the full moon. We can see it just with time-exposure photography.”

I reflect on these words and think that Einstein was absolutely right when he said that, due to the limits of our knowledge, we can embrace the entire world just through our imagination, stimulating progress and giving birth to evolution.

Our guide then tells us about the visit of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the community where he celebrates Mass on Sundays. When the sisters saw the ice caps of Mars, the moon and Jupiter through the


The facade of the pontifical villa in Castel Gandolfo, traditionally the pope’s summer residence, though Pope Francis has spent his summers mostly in Rome.

telescopes, they were in speechless wonder, Father Mueller recounts.

Furthermore, the Observatory is hosting a summer school in astronomy, held every two years. Currently, 25 university students from around the world, including doctoral candidates and undergraduate students in astronomy, are discussing water in the solar system and beyond. What a great chance for both the students and professors to build a network of generations of astronomers!

I’d like to conclude with an image Father Mueller shared. The Vatican Observatory has a large meteorite collection. Seven years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI visited there, a picture was taken of him holding a meteorite that fell to Earth — a small piece of Mars. It can be undoubtedly said, then, that the pope held Mars in his hands!

Photos and text by Claudia Giampietro.

Claudia Giampietro was a resident at The Lay Centre in 2015-2016. She is a native Italian and a translator. This entry was first published on her personal blog.

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