Brother Guy Consolmagno: planetary scientist, Vatican Observatory

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

How did you experience that first call to religious life?

Every couple has their “how we met” story, and every religious has his or her vocation story. I have told mine so many times that I remember less the actual events, and more the version of the last time I told the story. So to make it fresh, and maybe find some truth in it that has been hidden from me, I am going to try to approach it from a different point of view.

First, some basics. I am a classic baby-boomer kid, born in 1952 in America of an Irish-American mother and Italian-American father, the youngest of three children. That’s a pretty common background for cradle Catholics of my generation. We were active Catholics, but not overly pious; we certainly did not live in a Catholic ghetto.

What’s less common is that my parents were both college educated, and my Italian grandfather (who came to the US at age seven in 1899) was a lawyer with a degree from Boston University. All my siblings have multiple university degrees; my sister is a retired schoolteacher, and even my hippy brother, who has lived mostly on air for all his life (he’s a blues musician) has a master’s in creative writing. We’re a bookish family. We’re also all great friends who enjoy each others’ company.

What was I going to be when I grew up? A writer; a pilot; an astronomer; a journalist; a chemist; a sailor; a lawyer; a soldier; a priest. The usual, in other words. A favorite toy was my father’s old typewriter, the one he took with him to World War II (and which I took with me to college). I wrote a biography of my brother when I was six, and he was nine; I typed out a regular family newspaper.

I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, back when Detroit was at its peak. I was the smartest boy in my class, no mean feat given the competition; in the achievement tests we took at age 14, seven of us boys scored in the 99th percentile. There was one girl who got better grades than me; she became my high school sweetheart. (We’re still good friends.)

I first heard of the Jesuits, and their high school, when I was about ten, as part of a presentation on how our school taught science, at a teachers’ meeting being held at the local Jesuit high school. I was told that it was the best school in the city; I knew then that I would go there. In fact my brother started there three years before me, but he’d flunked out by the time I arrived. (“He knows many, many things, but none of them are on the syllabus.”)

I loved it. The first year was tough—it was not so much the shock of no longer being the smartest kid in the class, but the temptation to relax and use that as an excuse not to work hard. The Jesuits wouldn’t let me get away with that, however. They shamed me, cajoled me, and flattered me into academic excellence. By the time I was finished, at age seventeen, I had as good a background in the arts and humanities as most university undergraduates.

The Jesuit spirituality supplemented my mother’s Irish piety with a strong intellectual backbone. It was nothing new or unusual to me; the sisters who had taught me religion—and science—in my Catholic grade school were no slouches, either. But it was completely congruent with both my intellectual family background and the tenor of the times.

I graduated high school in 1970. I loved the Jesuits and their sense of what life in general was all about. I decided to attend a Jesuit university in Boston, Boston College, to stay close to them and maybe be available if I should decide to follow a religious vocation.

After my great high school experience, Boston College was a great disappointment. It was not intellectually challenging and, worse, it was part of the same narrow Catholic world that I was ready to go out beyond. Rather than repeat the story I have told too often of how I did not become a Jesuit then, let me merely state that what had attracted me to be a Jesuit was mostly the desire to get away from an unhappy situation; and I realized even then that it wasn’t a good enough reason. Instead, I transferred to MIT and studied planetary sciences.

Fast forward nearly twenty years. By 1988, I had my doctorate, several dozen scientific publications, a reputation for good (and bad) in my field, two years’ experience in Africa in the Peace Corps, and a job at a small university in Pennsylvania. I had also just turned in the manuscript of my first book, Turn Left at Orion. I had finally admitted to myself that my five-year attempt to make a relationship work with a woman I knew in Boston was beyond hope; and, to be honest, it was a relief to accept that and move on. But though I was as happy as I could ever have imagined myself… something was still incomplete in my life. I thought of my Turn Left co-author, Dan, married and delighted with two small children. And I realised that, wonderful as that was for him, it wasn’t for me.

Can I identify one moment when the sense of vocation came to me? I remember several, and I am not sure that any one of them was definitive. On the shore of Windermere in January, after I’d delivered my manuscript. At the apartment of a soon-to-be-married friend from my Peace Corps days. But I have also found reference to the possibility in a letter I wrote to my parents from Africa, two years earlier. So… no, there was no specific moment.

Was it something I was sure of from the beginning? Not at all… I worried about it for nearly two years, not even counting the two years of novitiate before taking first vows. I talked about it with everyone I knew… including women I had dated. I was stunned at the unanimous opinion of everyone in favour of me entering religious life. Including from friends who were atheists. Including women I had dated.

I came up with lots of rational reasons for and against. In retrospect, neither set turned out to be valid. It has not been what I expected. I never expected it to feel so right.

Was it always a question of becoming Jesuit? Or did you ever consider entering another order, becoming a diocesan priest (when the priesthood was still in your sights)…

Was it always the Jesuits? Yes. I knew them from high school, I knew what they were about, and I knew they were a good fit.

In fact, I had encountered Christian Brothers when I was in Kenya, and certainly their example made me think about being a brother; but even then I only considered being a Jesuit brother. For the same reasons that I did not enter religious life at eighteen—recognising in myself that I was an overly intellectual nerd, not particularly good at dealing with people with problems—I knew that I needed to belong to a highly intellectual group. Diocesan priesthood was out; it calls for all sorts of talents I don’t have. I suppose I could have been a Franciscan or a Dominican. They run schools, but not nearly as many as the Jesuits. I knew the Jesuits; I did not know anyone from those other orders.

That said, when I finally started exploring my vocation I realised I had another choice to make. There were at that time ten different provinces of Jesuits in the US, based on geography; so I could have entered in Detroit, where I grew up, or Boston, where I had lived most of my adult life. I entered in “Maryland” province, which includes Pennsylvania, where I was living and teaching at that time.

But the choice was more than geographical. Speaking with other Jesuits, it soon became clear that the different provinces also had distinct “personalities.” Some provinces, like Detroit, put their emphasis more on faith-and-justice ministries, and thus their formation was oriented that way. By contrast, Maryland had five universities to staff, including some of the most prestigious (Georgetown and St. Joseph’s); and I’d bet a majority of the Jesuits in that province have PhDs in some topic. Thus I would be fitting into a group of men like myself, and into a formation program that was used to handling people like me.

This turned out to be excellent advice. As a novice I was able to continue my work in the field; I was also challenged to go beyond my comfort zone in ways that were specially beneficial to a nerd like me, because the people directing my formation were used to having novices like me. In my novitiate class of five, we were two PhDs, two more with advanced degrees, while the “least educated” was the guy with a degree in Classics from Harvard.

How was your reception into the Maryland province? How did your own vision of your religious life compare with the reality of the thing?

Once I arrived at the novitiate, I knew almost immediately that I had made the right choice, for religious life; for the Jesuits; and for the Maryland province. I felt at home immediately. And I had a strange sensation I hadn’t experienced since I had gone to MIT… that I was not only happy, I was content. This was where I was meant to be.

The novitiate was not easy, in that it forced me to grow in ways that were not easy. But that was one of the things I loved about it. I learned that, if needed, I could actually do faith-and-justice work. I also learned the difference between work that I can do, and survive with God’s grace, versus work that I was born to do… (The one leaves you exhausted at the end of the day; the other charges you up while you’re doing it.)

It was also a delight to realize that this community had the same sort of spirituality that I had. We were—and are—suspicious of the overly pious, precisely because we take it seriously but know how to have fun with it. Your instincts can spot frauds in religion much the same way that you can spot fakes in science, I find.

I think the biggest surprise, though, was that for the first time I was in a place that could use all my talents—from science to writing to theatre to calligraphy—and accommodate all my weaknesses (which I will not list here, thank you very much!)

How would you describe the balance between the individual and the communal ethos in your Jesuit formation?

Hmmm…

The two go together. It’s something I learned when I was still in the dating world, in part because I really only seriously started dating when I was in my late twenties.

Let me describe it this way. When I was eighteen, if I had put together a list of the things that were most important for me to accomplish, having a girlfriend would have been in the top ten, but not the top five. There were too many other things more important to me… like learning the cool stuff I got to learn at MIT. That’s why I was happy to go off to MIT (where the male/female ratio was 9/1 in those days) even though I knew, correctly, that my odds of finding a girlfriend were pretty slender. Likewise, I did not date at all in grad school (far too busy in studies, and besides I hated Tucson; I figured anyone I met there would not be someone I would want to spend time with.) So I was pushing thirty, pretty fixed in my ways, when finally as a postdoc living in Boston I started dating for real.

What I discovered then was that being in a serious relationship with another person was really hard. She had her own ideas about things, I had mine, and her ideas challenged a lot of my assumptions—especially the easy, unspoken ones that needed challenging!

One of the things I feared about entering religious life was that maybe I would no longer be challenged to grow in that way, that instead I would fall back into the easy way of thinking and living that I had had when I was living alone. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

The challenge of understanding and learning how to accommodate living in a community—of guys whom I did not choose and whose backgrounds might be very different from mine—is very different from learning to live with someone I might be falling in love with. But it’s just as challenging, maybe more so. If the community is set up right, adapting to the ethos is also developing the individual. That’s what makes a religious community different from a cult. The cult wants you to submerge yourself into their ethos. The Jesuits want you to be even more the person you’re supposed to be, and then build the community by fitting together those oddly-shaped pieces. I am reminded of a skilled mason building a wall out of flagstones, rather than using uniform pre-formed bricks.

The main place that development happens is in the thirty-day long retreat, which we do about six months into the two-year novitiate period. You do the retreat together as a community, but in silence, speaking only in one-on-one direction with your spiritual director. So everyone is working on his own spiritual growth, taking as many different paths as there are people; but we are all aware of each other doing those things, even as we are (by our silence) giving everyone the space that each of us needs. It’s quite an experience, and remarkable in how it binds us together even without any overt communication.

Your discernment was, effectively, a twenty-year process, and you were—as you say—well established in your field when you entered the novitiate. How, if at all, did this differentiate you from the other men in your intake—and what difference did it make to you?

My situation was not all that unusual. Our novitiate lasts two years, so there was a class ahead of me when I entered (and another who followed after my class) who overlapped. In that class ahead of me were two men older than I was; one was a lawyer who had practiced for more than ten years, and the other was a medical doctor who’d worked in an emergency room at a hospital before entering the Jesuits. (The lawyer, who left the order, is currently an officer of Georgetown University, and thus still close to the Jesuits; the doctor is now an ordained Jesuit priest, and working as a doctor at Loyola Hospital in Chicago.)

One of my classmates entered with a newly minted PhD in Economics. He wound up teaching at Georgetown for a while, but decided he would rather do parish work. Alas, he has suffered a cruel fate—he’s our new Provincial (head of the province, a six year term. Nobody wants the job.)

There was a PhD in philosophy the year behind me: he’s now a dean of a Catholic university.

I did not find much difference for having arrived late in life or with my career established, as far as the Jesuits treated me. I did find it was a lot easier to go through the novitiate because I did not have this eagerness to “get on with my life” that people in their late twenties or early thirties often have. I had gotten on with my life already, achieved most of what I thought I wanted to do, and realized that none of that was what really mattered to me. It made it easier for me to be a Jesuit.

What does being a Jesuit—the Jesuit identity—mean to you?

People sometimes mistakenly call me a “monk”; that’s exactly wrong. The Jesuit identity is precisely that we are not monks, which is to say, we are not limited to living apart from the world in a monastery. Rather, our identity regardless of the work we do is to live in the world, embracing the world; but with our focus, not on the short-term concerns of the world, but the longer view of our relation with God. And by “our” I don’t mean just us Jesuits, but rather “our” in the sense of all the people we are living among.

You find this idea in several of the Jesuit “mantras” such as “Find God in All Things” (in other words, live in the world and embrace everything you see there); “Be a Person for Others”—our focus must be on the people we are living with, not ourselves or even our own internal prayer life. Over and over again in the formational documents of the Jesuits you find the emphasis on helping others, being focused on others. But it is in a very world-wise way: we don’t reject the world, but rather we hope to redeem the world. To quote e.e. cummings: It’s a hell of a good universe next door—let’s go!

So the Jesuit identity is to be a person who’s made a commitment to live his life for Jesus by going where Jesus went, among all people, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, and everyone in between.

Our poverty is to not care about riches or lack—unlike other orders, who have a different charism, ours is not to embrace the graces of living with nothing, but rather to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter. (And not having stuff makes us more available for mission.) Our chastity is again for total availability… and again to show that being in a “relationship” is not essential (but certainly a blessing) as well as being more available for mission. Our obedience is to to the mission, to go wherever we’re asked, wherever the need is seen; especially at the frontiers, literal and metaphysical… and to emphasize that the mission is not our choice but what is given to us to do… a kind of poverty, again.

Brother Guy Consolmagno is a planetary scientist and co-ordinator for public relations at the Vatican Observatory. For more information about his work, visit his website. Brother Guy is the 2014 winner of the Carl Sagan medal for outstanding communication by a planetary scientist to the general public.

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