July 11, 2014 — The Society of Jesus is well-known for its educational institutions around the globe, but the academic work of the Jesuits also extends to the skies. The Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS), under the direction of Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, brings together young astronomers from countries as varied as Burkina Faso, Mexico, Iran, the U.S, Portugal and Australia to study the stars for four weeks every other summer.
Twenty-five students from 22 nations gathered at the Observatory’s headquarters on the grounds of the Papal Summer Residence just outside Rome for VOSS this June, participating in lectures and seminars by visiting scholars and presenting research centered around this year’s theme, “Galaxies: Near and Far, Young and Old.”
VOSS offers students the opportunity to learn from the Vatican Observatory staff, who are all Jesuits and accomplished scientists, as well as from each other. According to Br. Consolmagno, the school’s most important benefit is that it draws students from across religious, cultural and geographical divides who ordinarily would not have the chance to interact.
Thanks to benefactors, the school sponsors students from developing nations who otherwise would be unable to attend. Additionally, no more than two representatives from each nation are chosen for the school, presenting a range of viewpoints and experiences. For many of the students, VOSS provides their first opportunity to make a public presentation of their work in English, which is "good practice" for their future careers, said Br. Consolmagno.
The students present papers on their own research or the research being done at their universities, engage in a variety of laboratory exercises and visit notable sites such as Galileo’s villa and museum in Italy. More than 350 students have taken part in VOSS since the first school was held in1986, with over 85 percent continuing today as professional astronomers. This summer’s class began June 1 and concluded with a papal audience on June 26.
“You have dedicated yourselves not only to the study of galaxies … but have also shared your own cultural and religious traditions,” Pope Francis told the students in his address. “In this way, you have offered an impressive example of dialogue and of harmonious coexistence.” [Sources: Vatican Radio, Catholic News Service, L'Osservatore Romano