Vatican Corner 07-28-2019

On July 20, 2019 America and the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. It was the NASA space mission which for the first time attempted, and was successful in landing two men on the surface of the moon and returned them safely to Earth. Like millions of people around the world, Pope St. Paul VI, the pope at the time, watched the moon landing on television. He watched it from the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, and even looked through the primary telescope at the spot where the astronauts had landed. But the powerful optical instrument was not powerful enough, so he could not see them, however he greeted and blessed them by radio. He said “Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the Moon, pale lamp of our nights and (our) dreams! Bring to her, with your living presence, the voice of the spirit, a hymn to God, our Creator and our Father. We are close to you with our good wishes and with our prayers. Together with the whole Catholic Church, Pope (Paul) the Sixth salutes you.” Later after returning to earth the Pope met with the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives at the Vatican. There were some other religious aspects to the moon landing. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin a Presbyterian elder, had the idea of celebrating Communion during the Apollo 11 mission. NASA administrators were skeptical of the idea. They had previous had to fight off a lawsuit after astronauts broadcasted the reading from the Book of Genesis during the Apollo 8 mission. Madalyn Murray O’Hair the atheist activist had claimed it to be a violation of the separation of church and state. Her case was ultimately dismissed. But Aldrin was insistent, describing the moon mission as “part of God’s eternal plan for man.” The NASA officials eventually granted Aldrin permission to hold a service under the condition that he keep it quiet. Aldrin then presented the idea to his pastor Rev. Dean Woodruff of Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston. The question was asked if Aldrin would be allowed to oversee Communion on his own. One of the highest leaders in the denomination said “yes.” Then Rev. Woodruff obtained a small silver cup that would meet the weight requirements for Aldrin to take into space. Just before the Eagle lunar lander touched down on the moon, Aldrin pulled out the cup, wine and bread from his personal kit and with Neil Armstrong sitting next to him he spoke into the radio. He said “I would like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way,” He then silently read John 15:5 from a 3-by-5 card, poured the wine into the cup, it slowly curled up the side in the one-sixth gravity and took the first drink and food eaten on the moon, and they were communion elements. On the Sunday closest to July 20 the Webster Presbyterian Church (also known as the “church of the astronauts”) still every year celebrates the Communion that took place aboard the Eagle lunar lander. At his Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square this last Sunday, Pope Francis commemorated the anniversary of the moon landing by saying “fifty years ago man set foot on the moon, achieving an extraordinary dream” and he expressed his hope that the memory of “that great step for humanity” might spark the desire to reach even “greater goals”, such as “more dignity for the weak, more justice among peoples, and more future for our common home.”