SKYPING WITH THE VATICAN: BIG HISTORY, FAITH, ALIENS, MULTIVERSES, AND BEYOND

Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

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Using the telescope at the Vatican Observatory © Tony Gentile/Reuters/Corbis

As teachers, we all know that technology can be both a blessing and curse, which is why when we organize a Skype session with someone, especially someone important, we hold our breath, cross our fingers, and say a little prayer that it all goes well. This was my experience last fall (which I hope to repeat again this year) when I was fortunate enough to coordinate a Skype session with Brother Robert Macke, Keeper of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. I teach Big History at an all-girls Catholic high school in Louisiana, and every year, my students are extremely interested in and often confused about how they, as Catholics, could believe in the Big Bang and evolution. They’ve also had a lot of questions about how creation— as explained in Genesis—fits together with evolutionary science fit. I addressed some of these issues in a previous blog post about Big History, faith, and science in September 2014.

When you’re planning to Skype or FaceTime with an expert, you definitely want to make sure that all of the technical aspects of the session are glitch-free on your end. I coordinated with the tech department at our school to make sure that we would have a reliable connection, and that everything worked smoothly, from establishing a connection to making a call that everyone would be able to hear, with video we would all be able to see. To help ensure a great session, I suggest you test your call with the person with whom you’ll be talking. This will give you the opportunity to work out any kinks in their set-up as well as yours.

Technical issues aside, the experience was unforgettable for myself and all the students who attended. In preparation for speaking with Brother Macke, all BHP and theology students wrote two to three questions that they would like answered regarding the topic of faith and science. These questions ranged from how the Catholic Church views the prospect of alien life in the Universe to the location of heaven and how likely it is that there are multiverses. Students were treated to an introductory video made by Brother Macke about the history of the Vatican Observatory, after which we initiated the Skype call and students began asking their questions.

I was amazed at the questions that were asked, the level of which indicated that many students had contemplated these topics and put a lot of thought into their queries. The question we opened with was a wonderful way to begin: “My granddad thinks aliens could be the devil…what do you think?” Other questions included: “Do you think that there could be other intelligent life forms that believe in God (the same God as ours)?” “Have you ever questioned your faith as you studied science?” “How does science help with our understanding of the creation story?” “Would heaven be somewhere above the Universe?”

In answering these questions, Brother Macke was patient, personable, and extremely knowledgeable. The students walked away with a better appreciation of the compatibility of faith and science but also left with more questions, which is obviously one of the core goals of Big History.

About the author: Bridgette has been teaching BHP as a semester-long history course since 2012. She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.

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