Special Mass for the father of modern science


This 1635 portrait of astronomer Galileo Galilei by Dutch painter Justus Sustermans was part of a January exhibit in the Palazzo Pitti art gallery in Florence, Italy. (CNS photo/Marco Bucco, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — Catholic cosmophiles will want to know about a special Mass being celebrated in Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs this Sunday to mark the 445th anniversary of the birth of Galileo Galilei. It’s just one of a number of initiatives the Vatican is involved in to commemorate the International Year of Astronomy.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, will preside over the Mass, which starts at noon.

Members of the Switzerland-based World Federation of Scientists have been invited to attend and a number of Chinese scientists will be present, according to the federation’s press release.

The Chinese participants are also going to present a bronze statue, presumably of Galileo. Another special guest will be the Russian explorer of the North Pole, Arthur Chilingarov.

After the Mass, people can visit a special exhibit in the basilica, which was the last one constructed by Michelangelo. It was built between 1563 and 1566 amid the ancient ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.

 The show will feature Galileo’s major discoveries and inventions such as a re-creation of the pendulum and the inclined plane. There will also be photographic display panels and film footage of interesting events and experiments. For example, visitors can watch a video of U.S. astronaut David Scott conduct Galileo’s famous objects-fall-at-the same-rate experiment.

Galileo discovered that all objects released together fall at the same rate regardless of mass, like the 10-pound weight and the one-pound weight he reportedly sent careening down off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Commander of the Apollo XV mission to the moon, David Scott, dropped a feather and a hammer at the same time on the moon and, because there is no air resistance on the moon, they hit the ground at the same time.

Did you know that the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels also houses a famous meridian calendar?

Cardinal William Keeler (who is the titular cardinal of the basilica) and the Archdiocese of Baltimore helped find donors and collect funds for the restoration of the basilica’s glass dome in 2001. The dome’s lantern has stained-glass panels, prisms and blown-glass spheres that reveal the seasons and the time of day by the way sunlight enters and falls on the basilica floor.

Sunlight is diffused over a circle on the floor during the spring and autumn and concentrated on one-half of the circle during the summer and winter.

Another Rome meridian? St. Peter’s Square and the obelisk. Read this great article by Vatican astronomer Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno to find out more!

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