You may not have heard of the Cathedral of Frombork on Poland's Baltic coast. But the remains that were re-buried there yesterday after a ceremony led by Poland's leading churchmen were of one of the best-known scientists in history, long associated with one of the most significant shifts in the way we view the world.
Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium ("On the revolution of the heavenly spheres") dethroned the earth from the centre of the universe and ushered in the modern scientific age, was condemned by the Church as a heretic decades after his death. He had spent years developing his heliocentric notion that the earth revolved around the sun, based on observations of the heavens he made with the naked eye (this was before the telescope).
Yesterday he was buried as a hero at a Mass celebrated by the papal nuncio in the Cathedral where once he once served as a canon and doctor. (His skull and other bones were discovered in an unmarked grave beneath the cathedral floor in 2005.) According to an AP report, "a black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory, but also a church canon .... The tombstone is decorated with a model of the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six of the planets."
The honors accorded by Copernicus by the Catholic Church come 18 years after Galileo -- the Italian astronomer who developed Copernicus's theory -- was rehabilitated by the Vatican.
Yesterday's Mass was led by the new Polish Primate, Jozef Kowalczyk, Archbishop of Gniezno. Wojciech Ziemba, the archbishop of the region surrounding Frombork, said the Catholic Church is proud that Copernicus left the region a legacy of "his hard work, devotion and above all of his scientific genius." The archbishop of Lublin, Jozef Zycinski, meanwhile criticized the "excesses of the self-proclaimed defenders of the Church" in condemning Copernicus's theories.
Before he died in 1543, Copernicus' ideas were neither well known nor considered dangerous: in fact, they weren't condemned by the Church until 1616, when the Church was battling the ideas of Martin Luther. Copernicus had been suspected at the time of sympathy for Lutheranism. He had also clashed with cathedral authorities over the mistress he kept, whom he was forced to give up. But his Catholic credentials are otherwise pretty impeccable -- down to his doctorate in canon law at Bologna University.
Still, in De Revolutionibus he foresaw the stir his conclusions would cause.
Perhaps there will be babblers who, although completely ignorant of mathematics, nevertheless take it upon themselves to pass judgement on mathematical questions and, badly distorting some passages of Scripture to their purpose, will dare find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent as despising their criticism as unfounded.
It is good to know that the babblers, triumphant for a time, lose out eventually.