Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Column: Mary Magdalene and talking to the Pope

St. Mary Magdalene - scientist?
Domenico Fetti, Maddalena penitente
About that time I made Pope Francis laugh, and why the feast of Mary Magdalene is so important to me.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 22 July 2016.

What would you say if you met the pope? I had a chance to think about that question last fall when I was asked to write an account of an imaginary conversation between myself and Pope Francis about science and faith. It was tough to write, not only because it was hard to imagine any circumstances where I would speak with the Holy Father, but because, well, what would you say?

Little did I know that less than a year later, I would be standing in a garden in Vatican City, waiting for an audience with Pope Francis, once again wondering what I would say if I had the extraordinary privilege of speaking with him.

How did I end up here? In March of this year, I was honored to be appointed an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory, to be in this way a part of the Church’s mission to seek God in the created universe, and to be witness to the ways in which science and faith can work together to help us grapple with the ultimate mysteries of creation.

Fast forward to June, when the students and faculty of who were attending Vatican Observatory’s biannual summer school and those members of the Observatory staff who could, had a private audience with Pope Francis.

So what did I say to Pope Francis? “¡Gracias!” Thank you for elevating St. Mary Magdalene’s day to be a feast. He looked puzzled for a moment, in part because I had so badly mangled the Spanish for Magdalene, and just perhaps because this wasn’t quite what he was expecting someone from the Observatory to say after his remarks to us about science. Then he laughed aloud, grasped my hands and said, “Bueno.” It is a good thing.

Why was I so grateful for this change to the Church’s liturgical calendar that that’s the one thing I would choose to say to the pope? Timing, they say, is everything, and the official announcement of the elevation of Mary Magdalene’s feast to be of the same import as the 12 apostles she had been sent to, had been made the day before.

But in truth it was because this feast is to me a potent reminder that nature is a place to encounter God, not only as the creator, but as the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene met Jesus after the resurrection in the garden, a space hollowed out within a city to let people come closer to nature.

I can meet God, and indeed Christ, in my scientific research, in the depths of the atoms as well as in the breadth of the stars. Science, too, is sacred ground, a meeting place for the everyday and the extraordinary.

Christ sent Mary Magdalene as the first witness to his resurrection, a reminder that anyone and everyone is called to announce the Gospel’s good news. The new preface written for Mary Magdalene’s feast reminds us it is our duty “to preach the Gospel to everyone.” It nudges me, too, to remember to listen for Christ in the unexpected corners, in the ordinary people I meet as well as in the extraordinary. It’s a good thing.


  1. Nice connection of Mary Magdalene, science, creation, and Resurrection. Thank you. I'm not sure what I would say to Pope Francis, maybe a thank you for Laudato Si.

    1. Thanks! One of my colleagues thanked him for Laudato Si, also in Spanish :)