By Christopher Kennedy
June 23, 2023 — From my office for the week at the Vatican Observatory, adjacent to Piazza Pia in Albano, Italy, I hear children running in the park, vendors selling vegetables and oversized trucks navigating the narrow stone streets.
I’m also next to the main door to the complex, a 12-foot-tall behemoth that could probably stop a military tank dead in its tracks. The door usually has to be slammed shut in order to make sure it latches.
During most of the year at the Observatory, this door opens and shuts just a few times a day, as staff come and go. The Jesuit astronomers — whose order has staffed the observatory since 1934 — live above their offices, so they only use it if they’re venturing into town.
This month, though, the slams are constant. Loud, normally rage-inducing bangs echo through the stone foyer.
But, for all of June, through the doors pass the 25 students of the Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS), a program that brings together young astronomers along with some of the best faculty in the field. Since 1986, the Vatican Observatory has welcomed advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students in astronomy for a monthlong seminar every two years — because of the pandemic, this is the first held since 2018. Among its notable alumni are Ray Jayawardhana, a dean and professor at Cornell University; and Heino Falcke, a key player in the Event Horizon Telescope that first imaged the shadow of a black hole.
The students’ excitement, chatter and enthusiasm make the door slamming much more tolerable — almost pleasant.
I’m here at the school for its first two weeks, to get to know the students and their backgrounds, and their hopes for the future. I’ve dropped into a few of the lectures as well, but the topics of this year’s school, revolving around big data and machine learning in astronomical surveys, are a bit over my head, if you’ll pardon the pun.
So I’ve gotten to chat with the students during the midmorning coffee break (this is Italy, after all) and again over long and delicious lunches (Italy!).
Ashod Khederlarian a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh originally from Lebanon, told me, “Before the school started, I wondered how easily all the students would be able to connect with each other, considering our diverse cultures and backgrounds. However, after just two weeks, we have developed strong bonds and genuine friendships that transcend borders.”
The 25 come from all walks of life: poor and middle-class backgrounds, small and large families, devoutly faithful or without any religious background. (Religion plays no role in the admissions process.)
The Observatory ensures that everyone feels part of the community right from the start. Élodie Lescure, a master’s in physics student at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, told me, “This is my first trip alone. Knowing that someone would pick me up at the airport, and that Brother Guy (Consolmagno, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory) would welcome me to be sure I arrived safely, really made me feel taken care of.”
On the first evening, I saw people talking and sitting with others from their own corners of the world. But by the next morning’s coffee, people from South America were eagerly discussing their research, backgrounds and hobbies with students from Africa and North America. Europeans were talking about soccer with people from Asia and Australia. Folks whose governments might be at odds with each other were sitting and making small talk over espresso and croissants.
In my time as executive director of development for the Vatican Observatory Foundation, I’ve seen the remarkable power of astronomy to bring people together. Shared awe of the heavens, it seems, has a special ability to knock down walls.
The national observatory of the world’s smallest country has the unique chance to make this happen. For one, as an institution dedicated to the relationship between faith and science since its founding by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, the Vatican Observatory has always been a champion of dialogue. Its research and excellent reputation means that it can attract top experts to serve as faculty.
Also, it’s blessed with incredibly generous supporters to the Vatican Observatory Foundation. This year, the Foundation has covered the entire cost of the school. Students attend tuition-free, and those with greater need, especially from developing countries, have their travel and room and board covered. As Br. Consolmagno explained, “Our Summer School is one of the most important activities of the Vatican Observatory. Of course it is a way we can support serious science, especially for students from the developing world. But the students in turn bring such lively enthusiasm to our work here as well! They are living witness to the joy of studying God’s universe.”
As students go back to their hotel this afternoon to get some much-needed rest, continue their work or talk with family, I’m taking care of some office work and decluttering my inbox. The door will slam much less often this afternoon — but it will be a bit too quiet.
Christopher Kennedy has served as the Executive Director of Development for the Vatican Observatory Foundation since March 2022. He is a native of Mystic, Connecticut, and a graduate of Fordham University.