On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 space crew, made unprecedented history by completing a voyage to the moon and being the first to land upon it. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this monumental event, we have a great deal to be proud of and upon which to build and reflect. As Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon exclaimed as he made that incredible step, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” A great deal has occurred in our world during the 50 years since that step but the courage, vision and determination which made it possible continue to give us encouragement and hope in the ability of humankind to fulfill its potential as created in the image and likeness of God. The decision to make the voyage to the moon was as unprecedented as the voyage itself.
It was President John F. Kennedy’s proposal that before the end of the decade of 1960s, the United States should commit itself to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. At that time, the majority of public opinion was opposed to such a proposal. In September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas, Kennedy announced with a great deal of conviction and foresight, “We choose to go to the moon.” He stressed, “We set sail on this new city because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or new terrifying theater of war.”
President Kennedy’s decision to go to the moon was very much in keeping with his setting the country on the path to a new frontier. Journeying to such frontiers are part of the life of all of us which bring about change and help us to journey to the frontier of meeting God each day of our life and ultimately in eternity. The voyage to the moon certainly was an encounter with the creator who made the universe to be an abode of peace and progress.
The many aspects of the spiritual encounter with the creator of the universe, which were enfleshed in the landing and walking on the moon were most evident in the attention which St. Pope Paul VI gave to this occasion. From his summer residence at Castel Gondolfo outside of Rome, the pope was intimately engaged with the voyage to the moon. He referred to the mission frequently and blessed the voyage of Apollo 11 on its departure from Cape Canaveral July 16, as he continued to pray for the astronauts. He gave them a Latin copy of Psalm 8 with a handwritten Latin text expressing, “To the glory of God’s name who grants such great power to men, we pray for the success of this wonderful undertaking” (Pope Paul VI 1969). The astronauts took this message with them on their journey and they left it on the moon buried next to the American flag.
So affixed was St. Pope Paul VI to the Apollo mission that he watched it with great intensity from the television at Castel Gondolfo as well as he gazed at the moon from the telescope brought there from the Vatican Observatory. A few minutes after the touchdown of the lunar module on the moon, he issued a most moving message to the astronauts. The message included the words, “Here, from his observatory at Castel Gondolfo, near Rome, Pope Paul VI is speaking to you astronauts. Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and 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, Paul VI salute you.”
Perhaps most moving of St. Pope Paul VI’s words to the astronauts were, “Christ, when coming among us from the abysses of the divinity, made this blessed voice resound in the firmament. Today We, his humble representative, echo and repeat it on a festive hymn on the part of our whole terrestrial globe, no longer the insurmountable boundary of human existence but the open threshold to the whole expanse of boundless space and new destinies.” The astronauts had traveled to a new frontier and the pope realized that entering that frontier would only bring them and all of creation closer to God and God close to us.
Upon their return from the moon, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin met with St. Paul VI at the Vatican Oct. 16. The pope likened them to the three wise men who followed the star of the heavens to meet God who had become flesh among us on his visit to this earth. He gave them a gift of a ceramic tile representing the three Magi and told the astronauts how much they were like them as men of science who found their way by tracing the stars. He said, “Man has a natural urge to explore the unknown, to know the unknown; yet man also has a fear of the unknown. Your bravery has transcended this fear and through your intrepid adventure man is taken another step knowing more of the universe.”
The astronauts presented St. Paul VI with a plaque containing the Vatican flag and four rocks from the moon, which remain on display at the Vatican museums.
St. Paul VI was not the only pope to be enthralled by visits to outer space. Pope Benedict XVI actually spoke with astronauts in space in 2011, as he video-called the astronauts aboard the U.S. and Russian International Space Station. He posed questions to them regarding the meaning of their travel in space and their relationship to the creator as well as to the people of the world made in his image and likeness. The astronauts made evident in their answers their appreciation for God’s universe, the need for deep communion with him and the need for bringing the people of this world together in unity. Pope Benedict expressed great gratitude to the astronauts for their insights and for what they were accomplishing on their mission.
In October 2017, Pope Francis addressed the astronauts aboard the International Space Station and, like Pope Benedict XVI, asked them questions about their perspective from their visit in space. The astronauts answered the questions in the same vein as the astronauts who spoke with Pope Benedict XVI. They expressed their faith, their awe and their belief in the magnitude of God’s love and care for his world as seen from the universe. One astronaut remarked, “I think our objective here is that of knowing our being, and to fill our knowledge to understand what is around us. On the other hand, the more we know, the more we realize how little we know.” Pope Francis expressed great gratitude to the astronauts for their insights and for their willingness to explore in outer space. He called the International Space Station “a little glass palace which is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The Apollo 11 visit to the moon certainly brought with it an encounter, which went beyond science into the reality of our relationship with God. The new frontier, the going to the peripheries of our existence as Pope Francis so frequently speaks and to which he calls us, are not only the peripheries of this earth, the moon in the universe, but also of God himself. It is God who created the universe as a gift to us because it is the sign of his marvelous love into which we are individually called. The silence of the moon that the astronauts experienced is that silence which leads us into God. We do not have to go to the moon to find that silence. We only need to look into ourselves. Just as the moon is a place that reminds us of the grandeur of God, so the depths of our being reminds us of the same. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, we do so with a great appreciation for what God’s creation has accomplished in the human spirit. We also do so knowing that there are many more frontiers to be traveled, peripheries to be encountered and always the depth of God to be lived. Indeed, each day we choose to go to the moon.