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Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, hosted its second annual Gold Mass recognizing scientists on Nov. 15. The Mass was followed by a lecture on faith and science.
Abbot James Albers welcomed the science community and the Kansas City-area chapter of the Society of Catholic Scientists to St. Benedict’s Abbey and spoke in his homily about St. Albert the Great, the patron of scientists, and St. John Paul II, both of whom praised the search for truth through science.
After the Mass, Christopher Shingledecker spoke on “‘The heavens declare the glory of God’: Catholic Contributions to Astronomy from the Middle Ages to Modernity.”
Shingledecker, assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at Benedictine College, was part of a group of scientists who discovered new molecules, long thought to be common in the universe but never before identified, in interstellar space. He was scheduled to be among the first scientists to do research using NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope and has taken the time to explain the significance of the first images to be transmitted from that telescope.
Shingledecker is the founding president of the local chapter of Society for Catholic Scientists and arranged for John Templeton Foundation funds to support the Gold Mass event. There are only a handful of Gold Mass events in America. The Mass follows in the tradition of special Masses for members of particular professions, such as the White Mass for health care professionals, Blue Mass for law enforcement and Red Mass for lawyers and judges. The “Gold Mass” gets its color because gold is the color used in doctoral hoods for scientists.
The events are important, Shingledecker said, because science needs to be deepened by faith.
“There is a growing awareness that science depends on things, for instance ethics, that are completely and by definition beyond its capability to fruitfully inform.”
He hopes events like this “Can help to combat the sadly popular view that science is the solution to everything. There are certain things science simply cannot do. You can’t measure the human good. And every attempt to make morality quantifiable has been doomed to failure.”
“Astronomy is the oldest science,” said Shingledecker in his remarks. “The night sky used to be your calendar.”
He shared the conventional view of astronomy as having primordial origins, but then pausing for the “dark ages” that were controlled by the Church, and returning in the Renaissance by men who rejected the Church.
“This is incorrect!” he said. “Science begins in the Middle Ages.” He cited Jean Buridan, who posited what we know as Newton’s First Law 300 years before Isaac Newton.
Benedictine College is a natural host for a lecture like his, Shingledecker said, because Benedictines were key in the history of science. Gerbert of Aurillac who became Pope Sylvester II introduced modern numbers and invented the first mechanical clock, Blessed Herman of Reichenau, who wrote about the construction of an early astrolabe device, and Abbot Richard of Wallingford, who created a sophisticated clock and an analog computer.
Benedictines were leaders in astronomy because of their devotion to the Liturgy of the Hours and the need to calculate the year’s movable feasts, particularly Easter, he said.
Shingledecker then traced the history of astronomy from the Renaissance — when Nicolaus Copernicus was urged by Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg to publish his theory about the earth orbiting the sun — to our time, when the Vatican Observatory system is a significant player in astronomical research.
Participants in the Mass and lecture were treated to wine and cheese refreshments, which doubled as a celebration of Shingledecker’s second child, born Nov. 13.