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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father Paul Gabor SJ, PhD

Gordon: Where were you born and what is one of your favorite memories of your childhood?

Father Paul: I was born in Košice, Slovakia. Religious persecution was pretty bad in what was then Czechoslovakia. My mother did not want to lose her job, so I                    received my first communion when I was 14. It was done in private thanks to my mother’s friends in Brno, Czech Republic.


Gordon: When did you attend Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, and what degree did you earn?


Father Paul: In late 1987, in my final year of secondary school, I wrestled with the idea of becoming a priest. I decided to defer such a step until later, applying for particle physics instead. I was accepted and started my physics studies in 1988. My second year was an exciting time to be a student in Prague. The communist regime collapsed under pressure from huge public protests, started by students. New possibilities opened thanks to these events. I spent the summer of 1992 at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland. While there I got to know a team in Grenoble, France, where I spent nearly two following years. By 1995, I felt like I had exhausted all the delaying tactics and had to answer my religious calling. I approached the Jesuits in Prague and became a novice just a few months after I spoke with the provincial superior, although I still had to pass a couple of finals in physics. I did not receive my master’s degree until 1997.


Gordon: When did you attend Ignatianum Cracow, Poland, and what degree did you earn?


Father Paul: When studying for the priesthood, candidates have to study philosophy and theology. In most cases, these studies are conducted as one program. The Jesuits, however, always divide philosophy and theology, interposing a period of practical activity. And so, after my two-year novitiate in Kolin, Czech Republic, I was sent to Cracow, Poland, for my philosophy. One of my teachers there was Michael Heller (Templeton Prize 2008) who was a priest, philosopher of science, and theoretical physicist. He has been an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory for many years, and he told me that the Church needed me at the Vatican Observatory. I was intrigued but I did not consider it to be feasible and never pursued the matter.


Gordon: When did you attend Centre Sevres, Paris, France?. What degree did you earn, and what was one of your favorite memories when you were there?


Father Paul: After philosophy, I spent the year 1999-2000 teaching philosophy at a college in Olomouc, Czech Republic, training future social workers. In 2000, I started my theology in Paris. Michael Heller orchestrated an invitation for me to the Vatican Observatory Summer School of 2001. That allowed me to get to know the Observatory. When I returned to Prague, I told my provincial superior that I found that the Observatory was doing great work for the Church. He told me to take some classes in astrophysics while continuing my theology in Paris.


Gordon: When did you attend Université Paris VII, Paris, France, what degrees did you earn, what was your favorite course, and what was it your favorite?


Father Paul: I returned to Olomouc, Czech Republic for two academic years, 2003-2005, working in the University parish there as a deacon and, after my ordination to the priesthood in 2004 also as a priest. I started full-time studies in astrophysics in 2005. In the first year, 2005-2006, I earned another master’s degree. It was formally granted by Universite Paris VII but it was really a matter of the Doctoral School of Astronomy and Astrophysics of Ile-de-France, which integrated graduate studies in these subjects across a number of schools in and around Paris. The last part of the course was practical work in a research team. That is when I joined the group of Alain Leger at the Institut de l’Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay (now a part of Universite Paris Saclay). I stayed with them for my doctoral program, receiving my PhD in 2009.


Gordon:  You also hold and have held several positions at the Vatican Observatory. What are they, and what do you enjoy most as an astrophysicist?


Father Paul: I joined the Vatican Observatory immediately after my tertianship in September 2010. Tertianship is the final stage of religious training in the Jesuit Order. The program in which I took part was in Australia and lasted 7 months. I took my solemn vows on December 8, 2010, in Rome, and was sent to Tucson, Arizona, where one-half of the Vatican Observatory is located. Thanks to an agreement with the University of Arizona dating back to 1980, the Vatican Observatory has access to telescopes operated by the University. My work is very varied. My research is mostly on exoplanets, but I also teach the history of astronomy at the University of Arizona, I do some pastoral work, and, since 2012, when I became Vice Director of the Vatican Observatory responsible for our presence in Arizona, I do administrative work and take care of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mt Graham. We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the telescope’s dedication in 1993. We commissioned an overhaul of the telescope with a new control system allowing for automated operation. This project has been taking up a lot of my time over the last few months.


Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.

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