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Heavenly Scientists

This past Sunday at youth group, our speaker asked the question, “We all want to get to heaven, right?” I thought it was a pretty straight forward question and the answer for everyone would be a resounding “YES!”, but the young girl next to me replied “sometimes”. I was shocked. How could someone not want to go to heaven? It’s perfection, pure joy. Why wouldn’t someone want that?

But then I started thinking about how every single day each of us sin. We make decisions where we choose something else over the path to heaven. As shocked as I initially was, that girl’s answer was honest. Even though we say we want heaven, our actions don’t always reflect that.

So if heaven is really our goal, then how do we get there? Well the path to sainthood is different for everyone. You are unique and no one’s journey will look exactly the same. Having said that, it’s still good to have role models when you have a goal, to look to people who have gone before you. So today I wanted to do something a little different than my usual blog. Since next Monday is November 1st, All Saints’ Day, I wanted to tell you a little bit about some scientist Saints (or people in the process of becoming Saints). Whether you’re a scientist yourself or you just enjoy science, their stories of their lives are universally inspiring.

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I’d like to start with St. Albert the Great since he is the patron saint of scientists. St. Albert was a priest during the 13th century. He was well-educated, studying at the University of Padua. In 1223 he had an encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary that moved him to become a member of the Dominican Order, continuing his education by studying theology. One of the many reasons St. Albert is the patron saint of scientists is because he wrote 38 volumes covering topics such as botany, astronomy, zoology, and physiology, mostly with remarkable accuracy given the time. In 1260, St. Albert was named a bishop, but the lifestyle that it required didn’t really fit with him and so he resigned only 3 years later. A story that I like of this “not fitting with the lifestyle” was that since bishops were of high esteem, they were given horses to ride, but St. Albert refused and traveled everywhere on foot. Instead of being a bishop, St. Albert continued preaching and teaching, very fitting since the order of Dominicans is also known as the Order of Preachers (OP).

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The next saint I’d like to talk about is St. Hildegard of Bingen, one of only four female Doctors of the Church, a title given to saints who made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing. She was a sick child, so her parents promised her to God and placed her in the care of a Benedictine nun at just 8 years old. Everyone could see her holiness and her piety. It was around this time that she began having prophetic visions. Despite never having a formal education, she soon became recognized for her immense knowledge. She not only was knowledgeable about things of the faith (why she was named a Doctor), but also music and natural science. A brilliant writer, she wrote pieces on medicine, natural science, and herbology. Although not technically named a Saint until 2012, in 1187 her biographer referred to her as a saint and acknowledged that many miracles were done in her life and at her tomb.

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Blessed Nicolas Steno was a brilliant man who grew up in a Lutheran home in Copenhagen. He was an inquisitive sort which benefitted him in his scientific studies but also led him to question whether Lutheranism was the correct faith. After graduating from the University of Copenhagen, he traveled throughout Europe meeting with many prominent physicians and scientists. During his travels, Steno went to Rome to meet with Pope Alexander VII. On his way home he encountered a Corpus Christi procession that moved him to study Catholicism. These theological studies led him to be ordained a priest in 1675. He was consecrated as titular bishop of Titiopolis. (A titular bishop is a bishop not in charge of a particular diocese) Steno spent many years of his life even after ordination studying science. He made many contributions to the understanding of anatomy, but his most significant contributions were in paleontology and geology. Thanks to studying shark’s teeth, he was able to discuss how solid objects like fossils could be found inside other solid objects like rocks. His predecessors believed these hard rock-like things were stones that fell from the sky, but Steno wrote four principles of how different layers of rocks are formed over time. This new science of stratigraphy made it possible for us to know which dinosaurs came from which era and to determine the approximate age of the earth. Steno’s inquisitive mind benefitted all of us through his science and himself in leading him towards heaven.

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Although Albert, Hildegard, and Steno are fairly well-known saints among Catholic scientists, one I had never heard of was Blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno. Born in 1825, he was the 12th child of a noble Catholic family in Italy. He grew up in a happy home with a concern for the poor. After spending time in the Royal Army, he resigned his position to pursue his doctorate in Mathematics. He became a university professor and devised a theorem on derivatives of composite functions that is named after him. He published around 40 articles in respected mathematical journals over the course of his career. To me, this is not what makes him stand out, though. Along with all of these academic accolades, Francesco was also a social reformer who worked with St. John Bosco establishing refuges for the elderly and poor. This time spent helping others and living out his faith inspired him to pursue priesthood even though it was later in his life. Initially he was denied because tradition was for this profession to begin in one’s youth, but Francesco appealed all the way to the pope and was finally ordained at the age of 51. After his ordination, he used this role to found an order of sisters which took in unwed mothers, helped domestic servants, and helped others escape human trafficking.

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Although just starting out on his path to sainthood, this final scientist is one that has inspired me for years. Servant of God Jerome Lejeune is the French pediatrician and geneticist who discovered that an extra copy of chromosome 21 causes Down syndrome. This as well as identifying several other diseases caused by chromosomal abnormalities earned him the world’s highest award in genetics, the William Allen Award. As impressive as his genetics accolades are, it’s his work outside the lab that inspires me. Unfortunately, the medical community wanted to use Lejeune’s discoveries to identify children with these diseases as early as possible, often with the intention of terminating those pregnancies. This went against everything Lejeune believed, so he spent the rest of his life fighting for the rights of those with chromosomal abnormalities. He wanted to show the world that EVERY person deserves to live. This fight of his got him praise from many but blacklisted by some in the medical community. After years of advocating for those with chromosomal differences, he was named President of the Pontifical Academy of Life.

All of these men and women are inspirational in their own rights. Their stories encourage us to strive for a virtuous life more ardently. Today I ask for each of their intercessions for you and for me. I hope that together we can all walk our individual paths toward sainthood, looking to our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us and who we celebrate on this Solemnity of All Saints.

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