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Catholic Vancouver Dec. 1, 2018

Students, researchers honour the ‘Ultimate Scientist’

By Agnieszka Ruck

A sciences student kneels during the Gold Mass for scientists Nov. 16. (Agnieszka Ruck photos)

Scientist Elizabeth Chun says she couldn’t be where she is now without her faith.

Studying a pediatric cancer in the field of bioinformatics at the University of British Columbia, Chun said scientists face many challenges and setbacks – obstacles she couldn’t navigate on her own.

“I really believe the study of science is the study of nature and God’s creation,” said the PhD student. “We get negative results 99 per cent of the time. We really need to exercise fortitude, courage, and humility. In order to bring cheerfulness and positivity to the environment, faith is key.”

Chun calls God the “ultimate scientist,” whose work inspires her to do her best in her studies.

“Sometimes I wonder: ‘Oh my gosh, Lord, how did you lead me here? It’s so amazing and providential and I’m not good enough for this. But I trust you, who entrusted this to me.’”

Chun was one of about three dozen scientists and academics at the Gold Mass at St. Mark’s College Nov. 16. That event, only the second annual at the college, aims to connect, encourage, and lead in prayer local Catholics steeped in the sciences. It is named for the colour of the hoods traditionally worn by those graduating with a PhD in science.

Pursuing the sciences and studying God’s creation is an “authentic and fascinating path of holiness,” said Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, during Mass. “The Church has pressing need of you: faithful women and men who are willing to dedicate your lives to this friendship between faith and modern science, a friendship which is often neither easy to explain nor easy to negotiate.”

Prayer and science go hand in hand for Catholic scientists, said Archbishop Miller.

He said academics who press ahead with faith and reason as their guides “tell a great truth to the world,” which is: “a scientific culture is rooted deeply in the soil of the Catholic Church.”

For example, he cited St. Albert the Great (scientist, theologian, and teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas), Galileo Galilei (Italian astronomer and physicist often dubbed the “father of modern science”) and Pope Francis (a chemist by training).

“From the outset, the Catholic tradition has rejected ‘fideism,’ which holds that to believe is precisely to go against reason,” he said. “What the perspective of faith brings to scientific research is found within – neither superimposed nor juxtaposed – the keen and tenacious search for knowledge.”

Chun, speaking with The B.C. Catholic after Mass, added that the “supernatural outlook” her faith gives helps her stay positive in a challenging research environment.

“Having faith is a source of light and happiness. You can really change the environment you’re in that way,” she said. “I wish I can evangelize my peers, too. Often times, it’s by doing my best and being natural.”

Elizabeth Chun, a Catholic PhD student studying pediatric cancer, meets Archbishop Miller.  

The Gold Mass is an invention of the U.S.-based Society of Catholic Scientists, who held their first Gold Mass in Boston in 2016. It is now held in various cities in North America, often on or near the feast of St. Albert, Nov. 15, and was first held at St. Mark’s last year.

Father Robert Allore, SJ, the pastor of St. Mark’s and a geneticist by training, was thrilled with the broad range of sciences represented at the Mass. “I see pretty much all the sciences here. There are physicists, physicians, surgeons, epidemiologists – at least one physiotherapist – and many more,” he said. Two permanent deacons with backgrounds in geology and computer science also participated.

While the Gold Mass is a new development in the local Church, Masses named for other colours have been held for a long time. The Red Mass, for lawyers and law makers, has been around since the 13th century. It has been celebrated in the Archdiocese of Vancouver for several years, as has the White Mass for physicians and others in medical professions.