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Celebrations planned for 30th anniversary of Vatican Observatory’s Arizona telescope

The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mount Graham in southern Arizona. / Credit: Vatican Observatory

CNA Staff, Sep 29, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mount Graham in southern Arizona celebrated its 30th anniversary this month, and the observatory has several days worth of celebrations planned for this weekend. 

The VATT is a relatively recent extension of the Vatican Observatory, which has roots dating to 1582, making it one of the oldest active astronomical observatories in the world. The observatory was re-founded in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, who intended to reinforce the Catholic Church’s support of science. 

Originally located near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Vatican Observatory moved to Castel Gandolfo under Pope Pius XI due to light pollution from the city. In 1981, again due to growing light pollution, the observatory launched another research center under the famously dark Arizona skies. 

The VATT, which is paid for by private donations, is today located on a mountaintop in rural Arizona about 200 miles southeast of Phoenix. The complex consists of the Alice P. Lennon Telescope and the Thomas J. Bannan Astrophysics Facility. The telescope saw “first light” on Sept. 18, 1993, the observatory said.

The observatory’s headquarters remain at Castel Gandolfo, a town just outside Rome and the location of the summer residence of the popes. 

Chris Graney, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, previously told CNA that Catholics can take pride in the fact that their Church embraces science, and promotes and encourages the kind of research that gets published “in the best scientific journals.” 

He also noted that the priests working at the VATT are following in the footsteps of other Catholic scientists who have contributed to our knowledge about the universe, including Father Georges Lemaître, the originator of the Big Bang theory. 

The observatory’s facilities on Mount Graham have been involved in numerous scientific discoveries over its three decades of operation. Astronomers at the VATT continue to discover new heavenly bodies, many of which end up bearing the names of Catholics.

The featured guest and speaker for the VATT’s 2023 weekend of celebration is Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., who flew on four Space Shuttle missions, served as NASA administrator from 2009 to 2017, and has described himself as a “practicing Christian.” The event will be hosted by Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Vatican Observatory director and Vatican Observatory Foundation president.

Celebration events include a reservation-only gala dinner at the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, Tucson, at which Bolden will speak, on Sept. 29. On Sept. 30, Vatican Observatory astronomers Father Christopher Corbally, SJ, and Father Pavel Gabor, SJ, will give a tour of the observatory. 

Set for Oct. 1 is a memorial Mass for Father George V. Coyne, SJ, past director of the Vatican Observatory, at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Tucson. And finally, on Oct. 2, the VATT will be featured at the Public Evening Lecture Series of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, with panelists discussing the telescope’s history and future.

The observatory recently announced that thanks to a grant from the Thomas Lord Charitable Trust, the VATT will be fully robotized in 2024, enabling its remote operation from anywhere in the world.

Catholic gym trains members to become ‘warriors against the evil one’

Coach Joe Enabnit (far left) with members from the St. Michael Barbell Club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. / Credit: Joe Enabnit

CNA Staff, Sep 29, 2023 / 08:00 am (CNA).

In 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic and a storm wreaked damage on his town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Joe Enabnit opened St. Michael Barbell Club in what he calls “a leap of faith.”

The gym’s mission is “to make strength training accessible and compatible with Catholic life, to spread the practice of strength training as a means of spiritual growth,” all while integrating fitness and prayer life and offering the work done in the gym up to God.

The St. Michael Barbell Club located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: Joe Enabnit
The St. Michael Barbell Club located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: Joe Enabnit

Enabnit, an experienced fitness coach, spoke with CNA about how the gym runs, how faith is incorporated into its mission, and what he hopes his members are taking away from being a part of this community.

Enabnit explained that in 2020 he was working at a gym that closed due to the pandemic. Since he had a gym in his basement, he decided to start training people himself. Since all gyms were closed in the area, word quickly spread about what he was doing and his home gym soon became overcrowded.

Then, on Aug. 10, 2020, a “derecho” hit Cedar Rapids, causing catastrophic damage. A derecho is characterized by a widespread, long-lived wind storm, and for the city of Cedar Rapids, it brought 140 mph winds that lasted for more than 45 minutes.

Once the storm passed and people came outside, trees were uprooted, cars and fences were destroyed, every single traffic signal in the city was damaged, power was out for more than a week, and three people had lost their lives.

That was when Enabnit realized that being physically fit was not only beneficial for one’s own health, it could also be used to serve the community.

“Being physically fit meant that all day long, we could help people,” he said. “And that was what we did for three weeks after that, day in and day out, six, eight hours, cleaning up people’s yards, helping people get their stuff together, taking food and ice to people because there was no electricity for several weeks.”

Enabnit continued: “It clicked for me and a lot of guys that there was more to this working out gym thing than just … a hobby. It wasn’t just about looking good, feeling good. It was an opportunity to participate in the ministry of being a member of a community where people can help each other.”

On Sept. 29, the feast of the archangels, St. Michael Barbell Club officially opened in a new, rented space. It’s an open gym where members pay a monthly membership fee and can work out whenever they like. Enabnit explained that members receive a key so they can let themselves in to work out whenever is best for them. They also use an app to help track their progress and view their workout program. For those in need of a more hands-on approach or support, Enabnit offers personal training as needed. 

Members also have their spiritual needs met by praying the rosary and the Angelus together, plus there are several priests who are members of the gym who hear confessions at the gym and give blessings.

“It’s not a marketing gimmick. We’re all serious about this Catholic stuff,” Enabnit said.

The St. Michael Barbell Club located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: Joe Enabnit
The St. Michael Barbell Club located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: Joe Enabnit

The longtime trainer shared how he views the relationship between the spiritual life and the fitness life.

“For some people, maybe they’ve been addicted to food or they’ve been addicted to drugs or alcohol and they need to find some sort of outlet for their addictive personality that allows them to respect their body rather than destroy it.”

“Or it’s something where even though they absolutely hate exercising, they know that it’s going to make them a better husband and father, or mom and wife, and it gives them a chance to sort of deny their desire to be lazy and redirect it into something that is bigger than themselves, whether it’s just between them and God or between them and their family,” he said. 

Specifically for the men of the gym, Enabnit emphasizes the idea that it is their “moral obligation” to take care of their bodies and remain physically fit if they are otherwise healthy.

“If you’re otherwise a healthy guy, it is a moral obligation because it allows you to do so much more for your family, for your friends, for your community,” he said. “And if you allow your body to waste away unnecessarily, you’re making it so that you’re not capable and you’re not ready when your family needs you, such as when we have a giant storm that destroys the town.”

Enabnit added: “You don't have to be a gym addict to maintain a high level of physical readiness. All it takes is a few hours a week of taking care of your body. And if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for your kids, do it for your wife, do it for your community.”

However, he pointed out that people can use strength training in immoral ways and there can be many temptations.

“There are many temptations with strength training, whether it’s focusing too much on yourself, too much on your body, whether it’s taking drugs to get stronger,” he shared. “Or it can be directed toward positive ends, whether it’s being useful to your family and your community, or personal growth.”

“The spiritual life and the fitness life are very similar to each other. There are many areas of overlap. Just like a prayer life, if you want to be successful with fitness, you have to be consistent.”

“You have to sometimes do things you don’t want to do, whether it’s sticking to a diet or doing a workout when you don’t feel like it,” Enabnit said. “Or in your prayer life, maybe it’s praying a rosary when you’re distracted or when you don’t feel like it … And all of these things that we do with the gym, it’s like training for the spiritual life.”

Enabnit said he believes that “a properly ordered fitness lifestyle is not just compatible with the Catholic faith but can actually help you to grow in your Catholic faith if you direct it toward the proper purposes.”

And why is the gym named after St. Michael the Archangel?

In addition to the gym opening on the feast of the archangels, Enabnit believes every Catholic man and woman is called to be “a warrior against the temptations of the evil one.”

“I want to emphasize the idea that the spiritual life is an ongoing battle, and it’s a battle that we sometimes appear to lose, but that we have to trust that if we keep fighting, we ultimately win,” he explained. “And that’s kind of the spirit of St. Michael because at the end he casts Satan into hell.”

Enabnit hopes that his gym members are “learning useful skills — both for taking care of their bodies as well as the skills that transfer into other areas of life” — and that he can inspire them to step away from the TV screens and constant scrolling on their phones to instead interact with those around them.

“What greater calling is there for a Christian than to see Christ in the person standing right in front of you?” he asked.

The three great archangels of the Bible: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael

Credit: Pexels

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 29, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Many Catholics can, at the drop of a hat, recite the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel — the famous petition to that venerable saint to “defend us in battle” and “cast into hell Satan.” 

In the culture of the Church, Michael is often accompanied by his two fellow archangels — Sts. Gabriel and Raphael — with the three forming a phalanx of protection, healing, and petition for those who ask for their intercession. The Church celebrates the three archangels with a joint feast day on Sept. 29. 

St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael the Archangel is hailed in the Book of Daniel as “the great prince who has charge of [God’s] people.” 

Michael Aquilina, the executive vice president and trustee of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio, describes Michael among angels as “the one most often named — and most often invoked — and most often seen in history-changing apparitions.”

Devotion to Michael, Aquilina told CNA, “has been with the Church from the beginning. And Michael has been with God’s people since before the beginning of the Church.”

Michael’s history in the Bible is depicted through Daniel, in Jude (in which he battles Satan for possession of Moses’ body), and in Revelation as he “wag[es] war with the dragon” alongside his fellow angels. 

Michael, Aquilina said, was “a supremely important character who was there from the beginning of the story.” Rabbinic tradition holds that Michael was at the center of many of the great biblical dramas even if not explicitly mentioned. 

He was an early subject of veneration in the Church, though Aquilina notes that the Reformation led to a steep decline in devotion to the angels — until the end of the 19th century, when Michael began an “amazing comeback journey” in the life of the Church. 

Following a vision of Satan “running riot” on the planet, “Pope Leo composed three prayers to St. Michael, ranging from short to long,” Aquilina said. “The brief one, he commanded, should be prayed at the end of every Mass.” 

This was a regular feature of the Mass until the Vatican II era, after which it came to an end — though Pope John Paul II in 1994 urged Catholics to make the prayer a regular part of their lives.

“St. Michael is there for us in the day of battle, which is every day,” Aquilina said.

The St. Michael Prayer: St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the divine power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

St. Gabriel the Archangel

Gabriel appears regularly in Scripture as a messenger of God’s word, both in the Old and New Testaments. Daniel identifies Gabriel as a “man” who came “to give [him] insight and understanding,” relaying prophetic answers to Daniel’s entreaties to God. 

In the New Testament, Luke relays Gabriel’s appearances to both Zechariah and the Virgin Mary. At the former, he informs the priest that his wife, Elizabeth, will soon conceive a child; at the latter he informs Mary herself that she will do the same. The two children in question, of course, were respectively John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. 

Christian tradition further associates Gabriel with the apostle Paul’s reference in his First Letter to the Thessalonians to the “archangel’s call” and “the sound of the trumpet of God.”

“Judgment will begin with the archangel’s call and the sound of the horn,” Aquilina told CNA. “Thus we hear often of Gabriel’s trumpet.”

Media workers in particular have “good professional reasons to go to Gabriel,” Aquilina said.

“Since he is the Bible’s Great Communicator — the great teller of Good News — he is the natural patron of broadcasters and all those who work in electronic media,” he said. 

“For the same reason, he’s the patron saint of preachers ... but also of postal workers, diplomats, and messengers.”

The St. Gabriel Prayer: O Blessed Archangel Gabriel, we beseech thee, do thou intercede for us at the throne of divine Mercy in our present necessities, that as thou didst announce to Mary the mystery of the Incarnation, so through thy prayers and patronage in heaven we may obtain the benefits of the same, and sing the praise of God forever in the land of the living. Amen.

St. Raphael the Archangel

Lesser-known among the three great archangels, Raphael’s mission from God “is not obvious to the casual reader” of the Bible, Aquilina said. Yet his story, depicted in the Book of Tobit, is “something unique in the whole Bible.” In other depictions of angels, they come to Earth only briefly, to deliver a message or to help God’s favored people in some way. 

“Raphael is different,” Aquilina said. “He stays around for the whole story, and by the end he’s become something more than an angel ... he’s become a friend.”

In Tobit, Raphael accompanies Tobias, the son of the book’s namesake, as he travels to retrieve money left by his father in another town, helping him along the way and arranging for his marriage to Sarah. 

The biblical account “has in every generation provided insight and consolation to the devout,” Aquilina said. 

Notably, Raphael deftly uses the natural world to work God’s miracles: “What we would ordinarily call catastrophes — blindness, multiple widowhood, destitution, estrangement — all these become providential channels of grace by the time the threads of the story are all wound up in the end.”

“Raphael is patron of many kinds of people,” Aquilina said. “Of course, he’s the patron of singles in search of a mate — and those in search of a friend. He is the patron of pharmacists because he provided the salve of healing. He is a patron for anyone in search of a cure.” 

He is also the patron saint of blind people, travelers, sick people, and youth. 

“Raphael’s story,” Aquilina said, “remains a model for those who would enjoy the friendship of the angels.”

Prayer to St. Raphael: St. Raphael, of the glorious seven who stand before the throne of Him who lives and reigns, Angel of health, the Lord has filled your hand with balm from heaven to soothe or cure our pains. Heal or cure the victim of disease. And guide our steps when doubtful of our ways. Amen.

Oklahoma archbishop decries execution of Anthony Sanchez as ‘archaic’

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley. / null

St. Louis, Mo., Sep 28, 2023 / 17:22 pm (CNA).

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City on Thursday called the execution of convicted murderer Anthony Sanchez, which took place a week ago, “fundamentally at odds with the culture of life the state of Oklahoma proclaims to be building.”

Sanchez was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of 21-year-old University of Oklahoma student Juli Busken, KOCO5 reported. He died Sept. 21 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, about a 130-mile drive from Oklahoma City. 

“Today the state of Oklahoma has once again delivered what it deems ‘justice’ with the execution of Anthony Sanchez. No matter how heinous a crime a person commits, they do not forfeit their human dignity bestowed upon them by God, the author of life,” Coakley, who often speaks out against the death penalty, said in a Sept. 28 statement. 

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, despite enacting several anti-abortion measures in the largely conservative state, lifted a state moratorium on the death penalty in 2020. He has presided over 10 executions since taking office four years ago, as many as took place during the six years between 2013 and 2019. 

“This archaic punishment is fundamentally at odds with the culture of life the state of Oklahoma proclaims to be building,” Coakley continued. 

“I implore all people of goodwill to join me in advocating for an end to the death penalty in Oklahoma and instead working to achieve actual justice that respects human dignity and prioritizes healing the wounds of grief and loss. Please join me in praying for the soul of Juli Busken, her family, Anthony Sanchez, his family, and the corrections staff involved in carrying out the execution.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting an update promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018, describes the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (No. 2267). The change reflects a development in Catholic doctrine in recent years. 

St. John Paul II, calling the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary,” encouraged Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” The bishops of the United States have spoken frequently in favor of life sentences for convicted murderers, even those who have committed heinous crimes.

Coakley’s statement upon Sanchez’s death was similar to the one he released in July after Oklahoma executed convicted murderer Jemaine Cannon, who stabbed a 20-year-old mother of two to death. Coakley sits on the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. 

Oklahoma was the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt lethal injection as an execution method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 1976, Oklahoma is the state with the highest number of executions per capita with a total of 112 executions, according to Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), a national advocacy organization that demonstrates against the death penalty. 

Capital punishment in Oklahoma has come under scrutiny and criticism in recent years, especially after a botched execution in 2021 during which John Marion Grant began convulsing and vomiting after being administered midazolam, the first drug in a three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections. Grant’s execution was itself the first in the state since the botched execution of Charles Frederick Warner in 2015.

One-third of St. Louis Catholic schools face possible closure 

Credit: Wuttichai jantarak/Shutterstock

St. Louis, Mo., Sep 28, 2023 / 16:45 pm (CNA).

The Archdiocese of St. Louis may close more than 25 Catholic elementary schools amid a major restructuring plan that has already closed and merged many parishes. 

Roughly one-third of the 80 Catholic parish elementary schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis will meet with representatives from the Office of Catholic Education and Formation and their Episcopal Vicar to consult on their current and future status, the archdiocese announced Sept. 27.

The schools being met with were chosen based on enrollment numbers, demographic trends, parish and school financial strength, and proximity to neighboring Catholic parish elementary schools, the announcement continued. 

“While some Catholic parish elementary schools may be recommended by the parishes to close, others will enter a feasibility analysis phase,” the archdiocese, led by Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski, said. 

Throughout October, the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and Formation and archdiocesan Episcopal Vicars will meet with pastors to discuss “the long-term sustainability of their parish elementary schools.”

“These meetings will be consultative in nature, and pastors will share and consider this information with parish and school leadership. Once this process is complete, pastors will return recommendations concerning their parish elementary schools to Archbishop Rozanski, much as they would under normal archdiocesan procedure,” the announcement continued. 

“Pastors who believe their schools are sustainable long-term will be asked to consider their current processes, develop a feasibility plan, and engage in strategic planning efforts to create strong, viable Catholic elementary schools.”

The archdiocese said it expects to announce school changes in early December — possibly later for some schools — to be implemented for the 2024-2025 school year. The archdiocese previously said that in response to requests to raise teachers’ salaries, they are “looking at a new compensation model for our teachers to take effect for the 2023-24 academic year.”

St. Louis is not one of the country’s largest dioceses but has historically had a disproportionate number of students in its Catholic schools. As recently as last year, 38% of St. Louis’ Catholic elementary school-age children were in a Catholic school compared with 13% nationally, and 31% of Catholic high school-age children are in a Catholic school compared with 10% nationally.

Three Catholic schools in the archdiocese closed earlier this year — St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in Florissant, St. Mark in south St. Louis County, and Good Shepherd in Hillsboro. Also closed was Barat Academy, an independent Catholic high school in Chesterfield, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Closures for two other high schools — Rosati-Kain for girls and St. Mary’s for boys — were announced, but supporters raised enough money to keep the schools open independently. 

Existing Catholic school building structures in the archdiocese are at roughly 65% capacity and, due to the archdiocese’s expansive footprint, many schools are “facing increased costs that are affecting tuition, declining enrollment often based on geography, increased building maintenance needs, and parishes that are unable to subsidize the cost of a school,” the archdiocese said. 

The consultative process is part of a larger process of consolidation, branded “All Things New,” which is administered by the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI). It is very similar to the ones undertaken by CLI in recent years in other major midwestern archdioceses, such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Numerous factors, including increasing suburbanization and rising crime, have led in recent years to an exodus of people from St. Louis’ historic inner core, where the greatest number of large, historic parishes were clustered. Catholics have been gradually moving west for several decades, away from the city center along the Missouri River and toward the suburbs, leaving parishes in the more urban areas with smaller Catholic populations from which to draw. 

Overall, in 2021, the number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis dipped below 500,000 for the first time since the 1960s. The number of parishes would have likely exceeded the number of priests by 2026 without action, according to archdiocesan projections. 

Rozanski’s final plans for the mergers and closures, announced in May, saw roughly 25% of the archdiocese’s parishes close or merge. 

Some Catholics in the archdiocese were critical throughout the All Things New process, in part because of the shakeup of parishes. More than 3,000 Catholics in the archdiocese signed a petition that asked the archbishop to halt the plan last spring, but Rozanski ultimately declined to revoke any of the decrees he made regarding the final plans, leaving the parishes with recourse only to the Vatican.

As a result, at least eight parishes this summer announced plans to send appeals to the Vatican, putting aspects of the mergers planned for the parishes on hold until the Dicastery for the Clergy issues a ruling, which could take several months.

Before making the changes, the archdiocese held 350 listening sessions, with at least one in each of the parishes as they were at the time. It considered feedback from 70,000 Catholics in the archdiocese who participated in a survey. Feedback was also solicited from 18,000 school parents, staff, teachers, donors, and community partners. In addition, the archdiocese held focus groups and talked with civil and business leaders.

Rozanski said the feedback helped structure the final plan, which was approved by the All Things New Planning Committee. The committee included priests, deacons, parish life coordinators, lay leaders, and religious within the archdiocese. In addition to considering the feedback, they also looked into financial data and other information.

Meet the Vatican scientist helping NASA on a historic space mission

Brother Robert Macke, a Jesuit and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, works in his office at the Vatican Observatory. / Credit: Photo courtesy of Brother Robert Macke

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 28, 2023 / 16:15 pm (CNA).

Brother Robert Macke, known to many of his colleagues as “Brother Bob,” is a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and one of the world’s foremost experts in the study of meteorites. So, when Dr. Andy Ryan, one of the leads for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, needed help constructing a device to study some of the oldest asteroid material in the solar system, he naturally turned to Macke.

The NASA mission required a custom-built “pycnometer” to measure the density and porosity of asteroid material taken from deep space. The device had to fit very specific restrictions to avoid contaminating the samples. Companies selling off-the-shelf pycnometers didn’t fit NASA’s specifications — only Macke was able to make the exact device the OSIRIS-REx mission needed.

Now, Macke’s device will be used to closely study the asteroid material and hopefully answer some of NASA’s biggest questions about the origins of the solar system.

What is the OSIRIS-REx mission? 

OSIRIS-REx, which is short for the “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer,” is the first U.S. mission in history to deliver asteroid samples to Earth.

After seven years in space and collecting 8.8 ounces of surface material from the asteroid “Bennu” 200 million miles away, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft landed back on Earth on Sunday, Sept. 24.

The samples, which NASA says date back to the earliest days of the solar system, were taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they will be permanently housed and studied.

NASA believes the sample taken by OSIRIS-REx will help answer questions about both the nature of asteroids and the origins of life in the solar system.

According to the NASA project’s website, the Bennu asteroid “is a remnant from the tumultuous formation of the solar system” and unlike any rocks found on Earth, “Bennu’s rocks offer us insight into our own history — a time about 4.5 billion years ago when Earth was first forming.” 

How a religious brother helped NASA

According to Macke, Ryan wasn’t originally intending to ask him to join the mission, but after they began to talk, he realized Macke was the perfect candidate to lead the construction of the pycnometer.

“He contacted me because I have extensive experience with the measurement techniques involved, having applied them to a few thousand meteorites and other specimens from collections in several cities in the USA and elsewhere,” Macke told CNA. “At first he was just looking for advice, but as we talked more about it, eventually he asked me to join the team and to direct the construction of the device.” 

Brother Robert Macke, a Jesuit and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, works in his office at the Vatican Observatory. Credit: Photo courtesy of Brother Robert Macke
Brother Robert Macke, a Jesuit and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, works in his office at the Vatican Observatory. Credit: Photo courtesy of Brother Robert Macke

According to Macke, the process of constructing the device took over two years. His team’s efforts were complicated by the fact that the pycnometer had to be completely free of anything that might contaminate the specimens.

Now that the asteroid sample has returned to Earth, Macke’s pycnometer will be a crucial tool to unlock the secrets being held by Bennu hundreds of millions of miles away. 

“We have successfully built the device, but my task is not finished,” Macke said. “The next step is to use the device to measure the densities of these specimens. This process will be spread over several weeks, and perhaps months. I cannot declare complete success for my part of the project until it is finished.” 

Artist's concept of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
Artist's concept of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

The study begins

Macke will be helping study the samples in Houston when it comes time to use his device.

“The OSIRIS-REx mission is a massive collaboration of scientists and engineers spanning numerous institutions and several countries,” Macke told CNA. “It is a real honor to be included among their number.”

Macke noted that he is “particularly excited” to be “helping to contribute to the wealth of knowledge that we will develop from the specimens brought back to the Earth from the asteroid Bennu.”

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launches aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket, Sept. 8, 2016. Credit: United Launch Alliance
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launches aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket, Sept. 8, 2016. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Though Macke said that he is honored to be on the NASA team studying Bennu, Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, told CNA that Macke is the perfect man for the job. 

“Bob is the best in the world at making these measurements, having traveled across the U.S. and Europe to measure meteorite collections — and lunar samples — in this way,” Consolmagno said.   

“I am delighted that a member of the Vatican Observatory is a member of the science team studying the samples from asteroid Bennu,” Consolmagno went on, “but it’s not surprising.” 

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is towed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center before launch on Aug. 29, 2016. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is towed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center before launch on Aug. 29, 2016. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

What is the Vatican Observatory? 

The Vatican Observatory, which has locations in Rome’s Castel Gandolfo and Arizona, is the official astronomical and scientific research arm of the Vatican. 

Though the modern observatory was founded in 1891, it has roots going back to 1582. Today, the Vatican Observatory is run by a community of Jesuit priests and brothers and is dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of the universe. 

According to Macke, the Vatican Observatory has been involved in “countless collaborations with institutions around the world” and occasionally, as in this case, it is involved in NASA missions as well. 

“I think it is safe to say that opportunities will arise to continue building useful collaborations with the whole scientific community,” Macke said. 

“The motto of the Vatican Observatory, given to us by Pope Pius XI in the 1930s,” Macke said, “is ‘Deum Creatorem Venite Adoremus,’ or ‘Come Let Us Adore God the Creator.’”

Many believe that faith and science contradict each other. Catholic scientists at the Vatican Observatory disagree. 

“By studying and learning about this great universe that is part of God’s creation, we can grow in appreciation of the Creator himself,” Macke said. “In short, for us, doing science is a form of worship. We do the same science as everybody else and work right alongside the others contributing to the sum total of human knowledge, but what motivates our work is fundamentally adoration of God the Creator.”

During GOP debate DeSantis says he would support 15-week national abortion ban

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks during the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sept. 27, 2023, in Simi Valley, California. / Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 28, 2023 / 13:32 pm (CNA).

Conspicuously absent from the second Republican presidential primary debate this week: much talk on abortion politics and policy. 

After occupying a sizable portion of the first debate in August, the issue was only discussed for brief minutes near the end of Wednesday’s event, wedged in between discussions on the size of the federal government and the GOP’s challenges with Latino voters. 

Only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were given the chance to speak on abortion — with DeSantis offering a vocal defense of pro-life beliefs before confirming that he would support a national 15-week ban on the procedure. 

Responding to a question from moderator Dana Perino as to how he might “win over independent pro-choice voters,” DeSantis cited his landslide reelection victory in Florida in 2022 after he signed a 15-week abortion ban in that state. 

“We won the greatest Republican victory in a governor’s race in the history of the state, over 1.5 million votes,” he said. He claimed the major victory came about “because we were leading with purpose and conviction.” 

DeSantis criticized remarks earlier this year from former President Donald Trump, who said Republican intractability on abortion was responsible for the GOP’s underperformance in the 2022 midterms. 

“It was the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother, that lost large numbers of voters,” Trump wrote on Truth Social in January.

DeSantis on Wednesday night disputed this assertion. “I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats,” DeSantis said. “I think there’s other reasons for that.”

The GOP governor said he and his wife, Casey, had earlier in the day visited the graves of former President Ronald Reagan and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. That memorial site features a quote from Reagan in which the Republican president asserted that there is “purpose and worth to each and every life.”

“We’re better off when everybody counts, and I think we should stand for what we believe in,” DeSantis said Wednesday night. 

“I think we should hold the Democrats accountable for their extremism, supporting abortion all the way up until the moment of birth,” he added. “That is infanticide and that is wrong.”

Directly after those remarks, DeSantis confirmed that if elected president he would seek a 15-week nationwide ban on abortion.

When asked by fellow primary contender Sen. Tim Scott if he would support that federal policy, DeSantis — in a hurried moment filled with crosstalk — responded: “Yes, I will.”

DeSantis’ campaign later confirmed to the Daily Signal that he had indeed affirmed his support for a 15-week ban. 

The governor earlier this year signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, an even stricter policy than that which he signed last year.

Just a few contenders for the GOP nomination have come out in support of a federal 15-week ban. DeSantis had previously refused to say if he’d support that policy; Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and former Vice President Mike Pence have all previously voiced support for such a ban. 

Trump has dodged the question of a federal ban as he ramps up his 2024 campaign. Speaking to NBC News’ Kristen Welker earlier this month, he said that “from a legal standpoint,” it’s “probably better” if abortion is only regulated at the state level. “But I can live with it either way,” he said.

“Something is going to happen,” he told Welker. “It’s going to be a number of weeks. Something is going to happen where both sides are going to be able to come together.” The former president further described DeSantis’ six-week ban in Florida as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”

DeSantis’ campaign did not immediately respond to a query on Thursday morning. 

Aside from DeSantis, Christie was the only other contender to speak at length about abortion. 

The longtime Republican noted that he had repeatedly vetoed Planned Parenthood funding while governor of New Jersey, though he also said that he “believe[s] in states’ rights,” arguing that Republicans “fought hard against Roe v. Wade for decades to say that states should make these decisions.”

Christie said that the Republican candidate for president cannot be pro-life “just [for] the nine months in the womb.” He cited the need for widespread drug addiction treatment in the U.S. 

“If you’re pro-life you’ve got to be pro-life for the entire life,” he said.

Indianapolis Colts owner donates $5 million to Catholic Charities to honor cousin, a nun

Jim Irsay, a billionaire businessman who grew up in the Chicago area, praised his cousin Sister Joyce Dura’s service to others during her time as a religious sister. / Credit: 317football|Wikipedia|CC BY-SA 4.0

CNA Staff, Sep 28, 2023 / 11:41 am (CNA).

Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, announced this week that he is donating $5 million to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago in honor of his late cousin, Sister Joyce Dura. 

Irsay, a billionaire businessman who grew up in the Chicago area, praised his cousin’s service to others during her time as a religious sister. 

“Sister Joyce spent a half-century giving back to others, so with this gift I only hope to emulate my dear cousin’s spirit, grace, and her commitment to our communities,” Irsay said as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. 

Catholic Charities Chicago is the official charitable arm of the Church in the country’s third-largest city, which is home to more than 2 million Catholics. The organization said it serves more than 350,000 free meals each year to people in need.

“We are delighted and honored by the Irsay family’s generosity to us,” Sally Blount, Catholic Charities Chicago president and CEO, said in a Sept. 26 statement.

“Jim and his family’s compassion for those we accompany and serve combined with their vision for honoring his cousin, Sister Joyce Dura, and her life’s mission — it’s all quite extraordinary.”

Sister Joyce, a member of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, entered the convent in 1965 and devoted the next nearly 50 years to her religious life. Sister Joyce served at several medical centers in Illinois in a variety of roles including nursing, social service, and pastoral care. She died in 2014 at age 71, the Sun-Times reported. 

Catholic Charities said in light of the gift, the organization’s five-night-a-week supper program at its headquarters in the River North district of Chicago will be known as the “Sister Joyce Dura, OSF, Supper Program” through 2033. 

Irsay, who has struggled with mental health and addiction over the years and now runs a foundation to support mental health, was raised Catholic and declared when accepting the AFC Championship trophy on behalf of the Colts in 2007: “As the humble leader of this organization, we’re giving all the glory to God right now.” 

The coach of the Colts that year — who led the team to a Super Bowl win — was Tony Dungy, an outspoken Christian and pro-life activist. After winning the game, the team’s late Catholic chaplain remembered the team gathering in the locker room and ending the day with prayer. Though the chaplain normally led the prayers, Dungy offered to conclude it “because of his deep faith.”

Republicans seek to overturn Biden transgender rule they say would cut school lunches

U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. / Credit: Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 28, 2023 / 11:05 am (CNA).

Republican lawmakers are working to overturn a federal rule they say would punish schools that don’t follow the White House’s guidance on transgender protections by cutting funding for school meals. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated its anti-discrimination rules last year to prohibit discrimination based on a person’s transgender status. The new rule will apply to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services and provide an avenue for transgender students to file discrimination complaints with the agency.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, and Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Florida, filed resolutions in their respective legislative chambers to overturn this rule. Per the Congressional Review Act, Congress has the authority to eliminate the new rule if both chambers pass a resolution asserting congressional disapproval.

Marshall, Franklin, and other Republican lawmakers co-sponsoring the resolutions have warned that the rule could cause schools to lose federal funding for lunch programs for impoverished students in schools that separate sports, bathrooms, and locker rooms based on biological sex, regardless of the student’s self-proclaimed transgender identity.

“In Joe Biden’s America, public schools must support Democrats’ radical transgender movement or they’re at risk of losing substantial funding,” Marshall said in a statement his office provided to CNA. “This president is relentless in forcing his misaligned values on the American people and children.”

“We must stop this policy dead in its tracks to protect access to school lunches for students across the country and send a clear message to this administration: stop weaponizing the federal government in your pursuit of indoctrinating children,” Marshall added. “The USDA has NO authority to require biological boys to be given access to girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms, nor do they have the power to allow biological boys to compete against biological girls in girls’ sports.”

In a statement provided by his office to CNA, Franklin accused President Joe Biden’s administration of using “school lunch as leverage in a political game to intimidate school systems into adopting their woke agenda.”

“We’ve worked hard in Florida to kick progressive culture wars out of the classroom and keep parents in charge,” Franklin said. “We don’t co-parent with the federal government. The USDA does not have the authority to impose LGBTQ ideology and dangerous social experiments like shared bathrooms and locker rooms on local schools. I thank my colleagues for joining me to hold the Biden administration accountable for this abuse of power.”

The USDA has consistently rejected the claim that the new rule would threaten school lunch funding based on these policies and has insisted that the rule simply ensures that students do not face discrimination based on their gender identity in their efforts to access lunch assistance.

“Some have incorrectly suggested that there is a link between this update and state laws unrelated to FNS programs, such as those dealing with gender identity and sports participation,” Stacy Dean, the deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at the USDA, said in a September 2022 statement

“That is not accurate — this update is specific to the federal nutrition assistance programs,” Dean added. “Others have suggested that this could result in loss of program funding. However, this action is about ensuring everyone has access to our programs, not reducing funding. When processing complaints, our goal is always to reach voluntary compliance. We strive to resolve issues by working directly with program operators and aim to ensure all program participants can continue to be fed.”

Could this affect Catholic schools?

Nonpublic schools that are affiliated with a particular religion, such as Catholic schools, are not subject to the USDA’s implementation of the anti-discrimination policies if the rule conflicts with the religious tenets of the school.

Catholic and other religious schools will not be required to submit a written request for an exemption but are allowed to request a formal USDA recognition if they choose to, according to guidance issued by the USDA. 

At second GOP debate, candidates spar over economy, immigration, crime

Republican presidential candidates (L-R), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), and former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participate in the Fox Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sept. 27, 2023, in Simi Valley, California. / Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 27, 2023 / 23:58 pm (CNA).

Republican presidential hopefuls on Wednesday night sparred for the second time on the debate stage, arguing over the economy, immigration, and other issues key to the looming presidential contest.

The six candidates — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former Vice President Mike Pence, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — appeared at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. 

The politicians over two hours traded jabs and touted their records as they labored to distinguish themselves in what is still a crowded GOP primary field. 

Absent again was former President Donald Trump, who has skipped both of the Republican debates held so far, claiming his commanding front-runner status gives him little motivation to appear on stage with his rivals. National polls show DeSantis a distant second.

In contrast to the contentious first debate, Wednesday’s discussion at times seemed to wander across topics as moderators from Fox News and Univision struggled to retain control of the conversation.

Notably missing from much of the discourse were questions on abortion, though DeSantis delivered a highlight late in the debate in defense of pro-life politics, telling the California crowd: “We are better off when everyone counts.”   

Most of the evening was given to policy questions. Asked about the ongoing economic turmoil in the U.S. — including high inflation that continues to drive consumer prices upward — the presidential hopefuls repeatedly blamed the Biden administration for those ills. 

“I really believe what’s driving [these crises] is that Bidenomics has failed,” Pence said, criticizing White House subsidies of green energy technologies and projects. 

Burgum echoed those accusations. “We’re subsidizing the automakers, and subsidizing the cars … and particularly we’re subsidizing electrical vehicles,” he said. Electric vehicles, he argued, depend too much on batteries produced by Chinese supply lines, giving the Chinese Communist Party too much economic power over the U.S. 

The candidates were asked about President Joe Biden’s appearance Tuesday on the picket lines of striking auto workers. Biden is the first sitting U.S. president to have appeared on a strike line.

Pivoting briefly to the immigration crisis at the U.S. border, Scott declared: “Joe Biden should not be on the picket line, he should be on our southern border.” 

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, urged strikers to “go picket in front of the White House” due to what he claimed was the Biden administration’s exacerbation of the country’s economic difficulties. 

Illegal immigration, crime

The candidates were pressed on the ongoing border crisis, which has seen record numbers of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. in recent years. 

“Our laws are being broken every day at the southern border,” Christie said, vowing to send the National Guard to help secure the border states. 

Ramaswamy declared his desire to scrap the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment birthright citizenship clause, which grants citizenship to children born in the U.S. even if their parents entered the country illegally.

“I favor ending birthright citizenship for the kids of illegal immigrants in this country,” he said. Claiming to have “actually read the 14th Amendment,” Ravaswamay said that “the kid of an illegal migrant who broke the law to come here” should not qualify as an American. 

“If you come here illegally,” Scott similarly argued, “you are not [under the jurisdiction of the U.S.].”

The moderators pressed candidates on their response to crime surges in many American cities.

“We can’t be successful as a country if people aren’t even safe to live in places like Los Angeles or San Francisco,” DeSantis said. He said he and his wife met three people in California who had recently been mugged in the streets. He urged support for American police. “In Florida, we back the blue,” he said. 

Haley offered similar support for the police. “You take care of those who take care of you. We have to start taking care of law enforcement,” she said. Citing insufficiently strict criminal policies, she argued: “We have to start prosecuting according to the law.”

Health care, education

At times the candidates seemed to struggle to stay on topic, to the apparent exasperation of the debate’s moderators. 

Asked if the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — would remain as federal health care policy, Pence briefly pursued a tangent about mass shootings, leading moderator Dana Perino to humorously ask: “So does that mean Obamacare is here to stay?” 

Pence subsequently vowed to return “all Obamacare funding” to U.S. states.

(L-R) Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former Vice President Mike Pence speak at the same time during the second Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
(L-R) Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former Vice President Mike Pence speak at the same time during the second Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

DeSantis, meanwhile, blamed high health care costs in part on the overall economic outlook. “Everything has gotten more expensive. We’ve got to address the underlying problem,” he said. 

Haley vowed to radically transform the U.S. health care system, promising to “break” the current health care paradigm and “make it all transparent.” She also proposed to address current tort law governing medical lawsuits. 

Circling back to his earlier criticism of electric vehicles, Burgum said: “We talk about, ‘Why do we have the most expensive health care in the world?’ It’s because the federal government got involved the same way they did with EVs.”

“Every time the federal government gets involved … things get more expensive and less competitive,” he claimed.

On education, Christie was asked about scoring gaps in New Jersey between minority and white students. “You have to address all students,” he said, arguing that charter schools and school choice policies in New Jersey helped close those gaps. “It can be done when you give people choice,” he said.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, was pressed about whether parents should have the right to know how their children “identify” at school, an apparent reference to transgender-identifying youth. “Parents have the right to know,” he said, calling transgenderism “a mental health disorder.”