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Pope praises Galileo, celebrates the Solstice

Galileo magnifico?

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The Pope tipped his hat to long-time Vatican bugbear Galileo this weekend as he helped kick off the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.

Pope Benedict also gave some comfort to pagans by acknowledging the connection between the date of Christmas and the Winter Solstice.

Pope Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, formally apologised for the Church's hounding of Galileo for pointing out that the Earth - and therefore man - was not at the centre of the Universe, never mind the solar system. But the relationship between Benedict and the sciences in general and astronomy in particular, has been somewhat pricklier.

So, it might have seemed perverse that the pope this weekend decided to highlight Unesco's International Year of Astronomy, which marks 400 years since Galileo first used the telescope. Still, the occasionally surprising Benedict - he wears Prada after all - rose to the occasion, paying tribute to Galileo and his ilk for promoting further understanding of the laws of nature.

Of course, in the Vatican's world, it doesn't stop there. Understanding the laws of nature therefore stimulates an appreciation of God's work. This would normally be the point at which we kick off an unholy row by asking whether the pope is then saying the laws of nature were laid down by God, and are not independent of him, whether he exists or not.

But instead, we're going to marvel at how Benedict, after veering into science, then seems to have swerved into Dan Brown territory. After pointing how Christmas uncannily coincides with the Winter solstice, he gave an account of how astronomy, and the solstice, underlie the very architecture of the Vatican.

According to AsiaNews.it, Benedict pointed out that "not everyone knows that St Peter's Square is also a meridian: the obelisk, in fact, casts its shadow along a line that runs along the pavement toward the fountain under this window, and in these days the shadow is at its longest of the year.

"This reminds us of the function of astronomy in marking out the rhythm of prayer. The Angelus, for example, is recited in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, and with the meridian, which was used in ancient times to identify 'true noon', clocks were adjusted."

Of course, this is what the Pope wants you to think. As any good conspiracy theorist knows, he is clearly trying to distract attention from the fact that the obelisk naturally points to the grave of Mary Magdalene, who is interred with the Templar's gold, the Ark of the Covenant and the outline for Dan Brown's next novel. ®

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