planetary science

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)… (more…)

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