Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Rolling out the red carpet for ET
There was wonderful news a few months ago when exoplanets were discovered circling a nearby star in the constellation of Aquarius. One of the planets orbiting Trappist-1, an ultracool dwarf star, might be suitable for life, and, as it’s only 39 light years away, could be reached by Ryanair inside 53m years – which coincidentally is how long I had to wait for my baggage to hit the carousel last time I flew with them. When astronomers were asked why they called the star Trappist-1, they said their lips were sealed, boom boom.
As if this discovery wasn’t enough, it was then revealed by radio telescopes that another star, this time 95 light years distant, might have beamed a cautious ‘hello’ in our direction. Could it be that an advanced civilisation is flirting with us from the constellation of Hercules? Or is that last sentence just a piece of random text snipped from Mystic Meg’s astrology column in The Sun?
All the talk of exoplanets and alien civilisations has put the UFO world into a spin. Almost as much of a spin as when Pope Francis delivered a homily a couple of years ago saying he would be happy to baptise Martians if they’d only meet him half way by showing up at the Vatican. ‘If an expedition of Martians came tomorrow, and some of them came to us here – Martians, right? Green, with long noses and big ears, just like children paint them – and one said: “I want to be baptised!” What would happen?’ Then he added: ‘When the Lord shows us the way … who are we to close doors?’
It sounded like the Pope was getting the Vatican red carpet out of storage (and warming up the baptismal water) to welcome our green cousins. In reality, the Pope’s homily wasn’t really about Martians. He was talking about the Church being open to the Spirit and adapting to unexpected change, and the Martians were just there for a comedy walk-on part. But UFO enthusiasts around the globe picked up the reference, which is why the Pope’s visitors from Mars quickly took on a life of their own on some of the net’s wilder websites.
Conspiracy theorists have long had a thing about the Vatican, in the same way my friend’s dog Sammy once developed a loving relationship with a local vicar’s leg. It’s not hard to see the attraction (to the Vatican, rather than the leg). After all, the Vatican has a secret archive dating back to the eighth century, with 85km of shelving, a policy where even the index is secret, plus a labyrinth of pedantic Italian bureaucracy to defend it. The small cabal of people in charge say it contains nothing more exciting than the Pope’s paperwork, but all that secrecy must hide something.
So, the Vatican, the dear old thing, has effectively pinned a ‘Kick me!’ label on the seat of its pants, and the conspiracy theorists have responded enthusiastically. They’ve already decided what the archive must contain: the lost epistles of St Paul to Nero saying Jesus was a fiction; a time machine used by a monk to go back to the crucifixion and film it; and of course, negotiations between the Holy Father and our future alien overlords on microchipping the human race.
There have also been some much-quoted comments about aliens from officials in the Vatican Observatory. Father Guy Consolmagno, who among other things is Keeper of the Pope’s Meteorites (not a euphemism) is maybe too positive about dishing out Communion wafers to Klingons. ‘Any entity, no matter how many tentacles it has, has a soul,’ he opined, adding that he would baptise any galactic visitor as long as it said please. He’s even written a book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?, and gave it that title because it’s one of the top questions people ask him. Mine would be: How would you handle a full immersion baptism in zero gravity? Or maybe I’d ask something more devotional: When God closes a door, does he open an airlock?
Will aliens turn up in our lifetime? According to a survey published by the Royal Society, if ET was found, Christians don’t think their personal faith would be blasted to atoms, but they do think the Church might struggle to defend its traditional beliefs. So top marks to the Catholic Church for giving the Martians some thought. On the other hand, even the arrival of aliens on a rocket-propelled Ford Mondeo seems more likely than the unlocking of the Vatican’s Secret Archive. Which is lovely for the conspiracy theorists, but for hardly anyone else.
This article was published in the February 2017 edition of Reform.