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George Coyne has left us: a personal remembering

February 11, 2020

George Coyne, a Jesuit astronomer former Director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006, left us on February 11. He died in Syracuse, New York, as a consequence of a cancer contracted years earlier. The Vatican Observatory had in George Coyne an intelligent and esteemed director, who opened the doors of this Institute to researchers coming from all over the world, making of this long-aged and prestigious Observatory one of the most lively centers of dialogue between science and religion. Other media will offer in-depth biographies of the American scientist, born in Baltimore on January 19, 1933. The current director of the Vatican Observatory, Guy Consolmagno has offered an obituary on the official website of the Institute. In these days, many other friends and acquaintances of George will remember him with gratitude and affection. 

George lived through an important season. Under his direction, the role of the Vatican Observatory was not confined to be a research institute of the Holy See, unique in its kind, aimed only at showing the institutional presence of the Catholic Church in the scientific world. George also gave the Vatican Observatory an innovative dress, introducing it into a new international, cultural and scientific room. Coyne had promoted important initiatives, created bridges, fostered encounters between scientists of different religious confessions. He brought all over the world the image of a Catholic Church which welcomed the results of the sciences and meditated on them, employing them as a source of inspiration for a deeper understanding of faith. Once located in the Apostolic Villa at Castelgandolfo, in George's office you could meet astronomers of international fame. On the balcony of his study, which you could access directly from his office, on summer days John Paul II would sit and chat with scholars and scientists, asking them questions and listening to their answers.

In that office and on that balcony I too had the lucky opportunity to converse with George many times since 1984, for all the years of his stay in Rome. When, in 1987, I told him that I was leaving the Astronomical Observatory of Turin to be ordained as a Catholic priest and dedicate myself to the study of theology at the newborn Athenaeum of the Holy Cross in Rome, he looked at me with sympathy and said: "Giuseppe, don't leave the study of astronomy: the priesthood of Christ is so great that it embraces everything". At first glance those words seemed distant from my feelings and from what I was preparing to live. Then, a few years later, I realized George was right. After my ordination to the priesthood, many colleagues unexpectedly began to ask me for seminars and conferences in which they wanted to know the point of view of theology on important interdisciplinary issues. I understood that there was also an academic way of promoting the studies of theology and science; this could be a nice field of research for me, but also an exciting terrain of evangelization. Only a year later, in 1988, the letter that John Paul II addressed to George Coyne on the relationship between theology and science was published, a document that after more than 30 years continues to be of extraordinary relevance.

In these years started the Interdisciplinary Conferences promoted by the Vatican Observatory on the important subject of Scientific Perspectives in Divine Action, which lasted for about 20 years. Theologians and scientists of international level took part in them; they were soon joined by the Symposia on The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, to whose organization I contributed together with George and others, a Conference cycle who brought together astronomers, humanists and artists. Fruitful years in which George, with his friendship and sympathy, was able to start prestigious and content-rich relationships, whose legacy many of us are still benefiting from.

Many analysts and commentators will remember George Coyne for his presence in the Commission, established in 1979 by John Paul II and chaired by Card. Paul Poupard, who from 1979 to 1992 dealt with some issues related to the "Galileo case," especially its cultural impact and its repercussions on the pastoral and life of the Church. George realized that the very purpose of this Commission was not to clarify formal or disciplinary questions, ones already settled centuries ago, but to heal a cultural wound, which distanced some scientific circles from the Catholic Church. He therefore gave a series of public lectures and organized events that brought this new sensitivity of John Paul II to a wider audience, helping many people to discover the Christian roots of science.

During his lectures, at times, he showed the public the photograph of the nebula NGC 7000, in the constellation of the Swan, called by astronomers "North America" nebula because of its shape reminiscent of the profile of the American continent. Then George pointed to his Baltimore with the laser pointer, joking that the USA had a place in Heaven too. We are sure that sky, which George studied with passion as an astronomer, is today for him, transfigured in Heaven, the place of a contemplation without sunset.

Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti

(c) 2020 Interdisciplinary Documentation of Science and Faith