Catholics look to night skies as comet reveals 'the glory of God'

Friday, Jan. 20, 2023

(OSV News) — Psalm 19 reveals that, day in and day out, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” But every now and then – or sometimes every 50,000 years to be more precise – they do it in a somewhat rare way.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) – more picturesquely referred to as a “green comet” because of its glowing green, icy nucleus – was only just discovered in March 2022. According to NASA, the comet makes “its closest approach to the Sun on January 12, and then passes its closest to Earth on February 2.” Last visiting the solar system during the time when humans dwelled in caves, the comet may never return to the solar system – but if it does, it will take another 500 centuries.

Jesuit Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, remarked that, “Comet C/2202 E3 will be a lovely sight, if you are an experienced amateur astronomer who knows your way around the sky, and you have a nice small telescope and dark skies.”

That nice small telescope, however, may not see much if scanning the sky in a typical city or suburban environment, where an abundance of artificial light steals the clarity of many celestial sights.

However, for those with the right equipment, including some Catholic colleges and universities, Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) should supply both an intriguing spectacle and a teachable theological moment.

Christopher Shingledecker, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, plans to observe Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) with students enrolled in his two astronomy classes. Benedictine's Daglen Observatory belongs to the Vatican Observatory Consortium.

"If you look at the history of human interactions with the heavens – with the night sky in particular – comets are always seen as being special events whenever they occur," Shingledecker said, noting the appearance of a comet is commemorated in the Bayeux Tapestry.

While it might require a countryside trek to avoid light pollution, Shingledecker said the comet's fly-by is still "a good occasion to get out there and take a look at the night sky."

"We often get distracted with living in the electronic and digital world – so much so that we forget to experience nature directly," he said. "An event like this is a good excuse to put down the phone, step away from the harsh glare of the screen, and enjoy the calm glow from the stars."

And to think of God? Shingledecker said yes.

"There's a tug that – even if one resists it – draws one to the edge of realization. This universe doesn't explain itself: why do we have this universe? Why do we have something rather than nothing?" he said.

Some seekers may halt their line of questioning at that juncture, Shingledecker said. Nonetheless, he added, "God can draw people from that point to him. It's a natural response. Beauty draws people to God. And I think the beauty of the universe definitely does that."

Thomas More University in Crestview Hills, Kentucky, is also anticipating the comet's arrival.

Wesley Ryle, a professor of Math and Physics, and the school's observatory director, told OSV News an enthusiastic student first queried him about Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), which presents an ideal subject for Ryle's Observational Astronomy Lab class. Students have to both observe and photograph an extraterrestrial object as part of the course. "This is kind of the perfect opportunity – it just happened to work out that way," Ryle shared.

But there are other opportunities besides the comet for contemplating the glory of God in the night sky. Upcoming celestial events both Shingledecker and Ryle highlighted include the Lyrid meteor shower in late April; very bright appearances of Saturn and Jupiter in late August and early November; and an annular solar eclipse on Oct. 14.

Sky-gazing can, in Ryle's view, assist his students – and others – as they wrestle with fundamental questions.

"Making these observations; realizing how big things are; how vast things are – some students take it as, 'Well, that means that I'm really insignificant,'" Ryle said. "But I usually try to flip it, and say, 'If this universe is as vast as we see -- and there's the chance that we're the only intelligent creature out there – that makes our role in the universe that much more important, in terms of what we do with our time, and how we treat each other."

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