This year’s first day of school was particularly memorable for students at St. Michael’s School in Ridge, because in addition to meeting their new teachers, breaking in their new school supplies and getting their seat assignments, they had the opportunity to witness a solar eclipse alongside their parish priest, Father Peter Giovanoni, who happens to have a doctorate in astronomy.

“I find personal inspiration in my science,” said Father Giovanoni. “Discovering a deeper and more profound truth about anything excites me. That is my pursuit in life…I want to be the explorer, I want to find out something more, something deeper in whatever it is, and that attraction ultimately leads me to God, the deepest of all things.”

Father Giovanoni traces his interest in science back to when he was a child, when his father was an amateur astronomer who photographed sunspots. He recalled watching a solar eclipse as a kid with homemade eclipse glasses made out of two layers of exposed black and white film in cardboard frames. When he learned about the upcoming eclipse several months ago, he decided he wanted to help the kids at St. Michael’s have a similar experience.

Not knowing how in demand they would become, Father Giovanoni went ahead and ordered some eclipse glasses to save for the event. Then, on Aug. 21, he invited any students who wished to stay after the half day of school to view the solar eclipse with him. He also constructed a few homemade pinhole projectors to view the eclipse through, and brought supplies for kids to make their own.

As they gathered outside of their school, wearing their special glasses to view the moon gradually passing in front of the sun, the students described the eclipse saying that it made the sun look like the moon, or “kind of like a noodle.” They also contemplated where they would be at the time of the next solar eclipse visible in the United States, which is predicted to take place in 2024. Many of them said they would be 17 or 18, and were excited about the prospect of being able to drive and be in high school.

In addition to getting more students interested in science, Father Giovanoni said he hoped the students would experience “awe and wonder” and start to ask questions about how and why phenomena like eclipses exist. He said he has never seen a conflict between science and religion, and that the more he understands the mechanics behind scientific phenomena like an eclipse, the more those occurrences point him toward God.

“My awe and wonder of God never decreased as I learned. It only increased more,” he said. “…I understand how unlikely certain things can be and it just so happens I get to be the one that sees it at that spot.”

He reflected on how the sun and the moon are two completely different sizes, and it is because of the precise distance that they are from the earth that allows eclipses to take place.

“The more you understand how everything has to line up, the mechanical and physical forces involved, you’ll understand how it works, why it happens, [you] can predict them and things like that, but then to realize in a particular place, someone can encounter an experience that is awe inspiring, wonderful…that element of it is not physical…These things may be here more than just for material functioning,” said Father Giovanoni. “That randomness in that coincidence can also be something that inspires and brings out that connection to God.”

He said people would sometimes ask him why God would make such a large universe if humans are the only intelligent life out there. But instead of challenging his faith, he said those questions only helped him to increase his understanding of God’s generosity.

“Even if there was only one person like me out there that was interested in this stuff, God would still create a universe where I may be the only person who ever cares about that but gets to find it and enjoy it, and that would be fine with God,” said Father Giovanoni. “…The size of the universe doesn’t make me feel so small that [I ask], ‘How could God care?’, it makes me wonder at coming to have a physical sense of just how much God cares.”