Close Encounters: A priest and a mysterious U.F.O. sighting
Americans were seeing things in the sky during the summer of 1947. A private pilot, Kenneth Arnold, was searching for a missing Marine Corps plane near Mount Rainier, Wash., when he saw nine “extremely shiny” objects “shaped like saucers” flying at 10,000 feet. Around that same time, a rancher in Roswell, N.M., found debris scattered across his land. Soon the Air Force’s 509th Bombardment Group at Roswell Army Air Field agreed among themselves that the rancher had found a crashed flying saucer—before announcing that the discovery was really a weather balloon. (The Air Force later revealed it was part of a secret program to monitor Soviet nuclear tests.)
The public was confused, curious and a little afraid. At St. Joseph’s Church in Grafton, Wis., something crashed into the lightning rod on the church roof. The Rev. Joseph Brasky went outside and found a warm metal disc, 18 inches in diameter, with “gadgets and some wires.” The mysterious craft looked like a circular saw blade.
Father Brasky, like many other practical jokers that summer, wanted to have a little fun at the expense of the media. Hoodwinked reporters were subjected to his collection of trinkets, including “bass bottles”—beer bottles outfitted with the head of a fish—and Fish Tales, his self-published book of angling stories. But though many unexplained sightings were proved to be hoaxes, they continued beyond that summer. Something, it seemed, was in the sky.
"Around 8:15 on the first night of the carnival, among the aerialists and rides, his searchlight spotted a 'glowing disc.' And this was not a one-time occurrence."
In April 1949, the Rev. Gregory Miller, the pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Church in Norwood, Ohio, wrote to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati with two requests. The parish school needed an expansion. Also, the nuns who taught at the school had been living at nearby Regina High School, but their quarters were “becoming crowded,” and they needed a new residence at the parish. Father Miller had a plan to deal with both challenges: He would hold a festival that August to raise money for the building fund.
The Saints Peter and Paul Jitney Carnival was approved for Aug. 19 through 21. The Sensational Kays and The Three Milos, two famous high-wire acts, were booked. There would be free entertainment—but also “fun for a nickel.” An Army surplus searchlight, owned by the parish, was used to attract crowds. The light was operated by Sgt. Donald R. Berger of the University of Cincinnati’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
Manning a military searchlight in late August was no comfortable task, but Sergeant Berger’s job would become more difficult than he ever imagined. Around 8:15 on the first night of the carnival, among the aerialists and rides, his searchlight spotted a “glowing disc.” And this was not a one-time occurrence. Nine times in the following months, the parish searchlight would illuminate the impossible: a flying saucer. Unlike Father Brasky’s saw blade, the case at Saints Peter and Paul remains unsolved.
Making Sense of Mystery
The early days of flying saucer reports were full of practical jokes—along with serious, confounding sightings from military officers and pilots. Readers, and most reporters in the media, were not sure how to juggle such a contrast. From the start, the problem with flying saucers has been, among other things, a semantic one: If U.F.O. stands for unidentified flying object, then any attempt to categorize a sighting makes it an identified flying object—something else entirely.
Even today, whenever we talk about U.F.O.s, we are engaging in endless conjecture. We are always trying to imagine what they might be. With our eyes to the heavens, squinting at fast-moving discs and sporadic lights, the mind wanders. Yet in the mid-20th century, enough people reported strange objects in the sky that the government took notice. Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study of U.F.O.s, compiled over 15,000 sightings between 1947 and 1969. Nearly 700 were labeled unexplained, but another 1,000 were categorized as unknown. While the difference remains debatable, and is likely a result of poor terminology, the conclusion is clear: Although most U.F.O. reports were easily and eventually explained, a small number were scientifically curious and enigmatic.
"U.F.O.s and faith both occupy a surreal space: the porous border region between the prosaic and the profound."
Scientifically curious and enigmatic, though, does not make for great entertainment. Aliens do. The rest is cultural history. From the rise of the contactee movement (people who claim to have had contact with extraterrestrials) to popular films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and TV series like “The X-Files,” U.F.O.s have become interchangeable with aliens. If an object courses through the sky, we reason, someone, or something, must be flying it.
These sightings are certainly interesting to U.F.O. buffs, but what do they have to do with the Catholic Church—beyond a few priests who saw strange objects in 1949? U.F.O.s and faith both occupy a surreal space: the porous border region between the prosaic and the profound. Imagine a woman sees a glinting disc in the night sky. She first thinks it is a star, but then watches it bounce and bobble and speed into the distance. She might scratch her head and move on, but if she keeps thinking about that light, she must make a decision based on conjecture. Either she saw something entirely reasonable and typical—a plane, the planet Venus, a spotlight aimed at the sky—or she accepts that she has an unknown experience. And once she accepts the fragility of her perception, she opens the door to even more possibilities.
Thinking about U.F.O.s can be an exercise in theological speculation, a way to consider what might happen if the prosaic instantly became profound. Such speculation is healthy for Catholics, particularly because it can reveal how we might seek to neuter our faith of its mystery. In the same way that we might rush to explain a strange light in the sky, we might seek to explain God in purely rational and realistic terms—a theology of convenience. Because the church has hesitated to offer firm teachings on the existence of aliens, theologians and philosophers have filled that space with wonder. As early as the 14th century, the French priest John Buridan, in a response to Aristotle’s De Caelo (“On the Heavens”), wrote, “It must be realized that while another world than this is not possible naturally, this is possible simply speaking, since we hold from faith that just as God made this world, so he could make another or several worlds.” Father Buridan’s suggestion here is that all things earthly—and cosmically—are possible through God.
Astronomers have had to parry questions about aliens for years. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., the director of the Vatican Observatory, has tried to be firm with U.F.O. enthusiasts, writing on his personal website in 2013, “I do not know of any credible evidence at all that there has ever been contact of any form between extraterrestrial aliens and Earth. Period. I cannot imagine a circumstance where such contact could be kept secret for very long. And I say this, not only as an active astronomer for 40 years, but also as someone who knows lots of people in the SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] community (who would love to have such evidence), and as someone who’s been an officer in the American Astronomical Society and in the International Astronomical Union. If there was something like this going on, we’d all be talking about it. There isn’t, and we aren’t.”
Michael Burke-Gaffney, S.J., a Canadian priest who is an astronomer and professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had an extensive personal interest in U.F.O.s—even covertly investigating them for Canada’s National Research Council and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1966, after the noted astronomer and ufologist J. Allen Hynek penned an infamous letter to Science magazine offering seven reasons why U.F.O.s merited scientific study, Father Burke-Gaffney responded with his own letter. He takes a more cautionary tone. Until we identify mysterious “atmospheric phenomena,” he asks, should not scientists strive “(i) to exhort people to have patience, and (ii) to remind them that, up to the present, U.F.O.s have furnished no evidence of extraterrestrial beings, and (iii) to point out that the existence of extraterrestrial little green men is no more firmly established than that of leprechauns?”
There is no official Vatican position on U.F.O.s and aliens, although in 2014 the Vatican Observatory co-hosted a conference on the subject with the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, called “The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System: Exoplanets, Biosignature and Instruments.” The next year, Pope Francis gave an interesting response to a question about extraterrestrial life: “In every case I think that we should stick to what the scientists tell us, still aware that the Creator is infinitely greater than our knowledge.”
Of Skeptics and Sightings
George Coyne, S.J., was director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006, when he retired to focus on teaching. He is known for examining the intersections between faith and science, earning him the respect of religion skeptics like Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Hawking. Father Coyne told me he is “very skeptical of all U.F.O. sightings of which I am aware.” I asked him if extraterrestrials are worthy of serious theological or scientific inquiry, and he pointed me toward a paper he had written for the anthology Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life, and the Theological Implications.
Father Coyne’s essay, “The Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth and Possibly Elsewhere: Reflections From a Religious Tradition,” offers a route forward. Father Coyne warns we should not study U.F.O.s in the hopes of somehow understanding the mysteries of God.
When we view God as “explanation” for the world, Father Coyne writes, using the “rational processes of science” in a manner not appropriate to their purpose—we ignore Scripture and tradition, which shows “God revealed himself as one who pours out himself in love and not as one who explains things.” Though science and faith intersect, we should not expect science to reveal a proof for faith. Perhaps, Father Coyne writes, we should look to the limitations of science and consider the “very nature of our emergence in an evolving universe and our inability to comprehend it, even with all that we know from cosmology, may be an indication that in the universe God may be communicating much more than information to us.”
“I do not know of any credible evidence at all that there has ever been contact of any form between extraterrestrial aliens and Earth. Period."
In this conversation, U.F.O.s are too prosaic and tenuous to be of use. As for extraterrestrials, Father Coyne argues that theologians must consider that the idea of life elsewhere in the cosmos “strains [the] anthropocentric revelations of God to his people.” He asks good questions without easy answers: Did God also redeem extraterrestrials from their sin? Did Jesus give up his life for them so that they might also be saved?
Father Gregory Miller had been at Saints Peter and Paul since 1938. His brother Norbert was a priest at nearby St. Vincent Ferrer Church. A third brother, Cletus, was a longtime priest at a third Cincinnati-area parish, Annunciation Church.
Cletus was with Gregory at Saints Peter and Paul on Oct. 23, 1949. By that date, Sgt. Berger, the searchlight operator, had seen an object similar to the one seen on the night of the August carnival on two subsequent occasions, and he was back at the church with the two priests, as well as Sgt. Leo Davidson of the Norwood Police Department, Robert Linn, the managing editor of The Cincinnati Post, and Leo Hirtl, a columnist for that newspaper. According to Mr. Berger’s observation log (published by Leonard Stringfield, an Ohio U.F.O. researcher), the men saw the flying disc in the sky, and then saw two groups of five triangular objects coming out of the disc.
Mr. Hirtl was skeptical, claiming that they had seen geese that glowed in the light. Father Miller stood by his story, even getting into an argument years later with Mr. Hirtl on the Cincinnati TV station WCPO during a special program on “flying saucers.”
Father Cletus agreed with his brother. He described the smaller objects as shaped “like the apex of Indiana arrowheads.” At the time, Father Cletus was dean of the Institutum Divi Thomae—a unique graduate research institute established by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The research was directed by Dr. George Sperti, previously a director of the Basic Science Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Sperti, a Catholic, later told Cincinnati Magazine in a 1972 interview that one of the goals of the institute was to demonstrate that there is “no conflict between religion and science.”
Under the direction of Dr. Sperti and Father Miller, the institute was responsible for an interesting array of inventions. It developed Preparation H, Aspercreme, a tanning lamp, a meat tenderizer and even a method of freeze-drying orange juice—while working on their central goal of cancer research. U.F.O.s were not in their repertoire.
"The sightings near Cincinnati continued through the winter and into the spring."
The sightings near Cincinnati continued through the winter and into the spring. One relatively consistent witness was William Winkler, who owned a printing company—but also was a “dabbler in things scientific,” according to The Cincinnati Post. “It’s not a flying saucer. Maybe it’s a base for flying saucers,” he conjectured. Mr. Winkler sent a letter about the sightings directly to General Vandenberg—the Air Force chief of staff—complaining about bungling F.B.I. agents and asking forgiveness for his handwritten letter (“My secretary has gone for the day.”).
At this time, Project Grudge, a precursor of Project Blue Book, had taken an interest in the Norwood sightings and sent a few members of their Office of Special Investigations to the parish. Those agents, along with two professors from the University of Cincinnati—D. A. Wells, from the physics department, and Paul Herget, from the astronomy department—were with Father Gregory Miller at the sighting on Dec. 20. Both scientists were dismissive, telling the Cincinnati Post that it was “an optical illusion” or an “illumination of gas in the atmosphere.” Mr. Herget explained, “We need an explanation to squash people’s fears.”
Mr. Herget might have said too much. The investigator Leonard Stringfield interviewed R. Ed Tepe, then-mayor of Norwood, who was also present at the Dec. 20 sighting. He explained that Mr. Wells was “there with camera and protractors and was in frequent ‘hush-hush’ with the Air Force investigators,” before calculating that the size of the disc “was approximated to be 10,000 feet in diameter.” In context, his comments sound like a cover-up.
“The last word is up to experimental science. There is nothing else to do for the theologians but wait.”
Mr. Stringfield also claims that Father Miller had film of the object, taken during the sighting on Oct. 23 by Sgt. Davidson. The film was reportedly shown to a closed audience at the studios of WCPO in 1952 but, like so many other elements of the Norwood case, has since vanished.According to David Clarke in his book How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth, that same year Domenico Grasso, S.J., a Vatican theologian, said the Holy See had debated the existence of alien contact after the flurry of U.F.O. sightings, concluding: “The last word is up to experimental science. There is nothing else to do for the theologians but wait.”
Whatever the Miller brothers saw, it was attracted to that searchlight. That seems like too convenient a metaphor, but how else do we think about the unexplained? Between August 1949 and March 1950, a U.F.O. visited Saints Peter and Paul Church. That is all we know. The moment we identify it, it stops being a mystery.
In the months after the sighting ended, Father Miller was back to writing the archdiocese. A section of the school boilers needed to be replaced. They needed to renovate the pews, choir stalls and church throne. That November he hoped to raise money to resurface the blacktop on the school playgrounds and parking lot by holding a turkey raffle and bazaar. No searchlight was required.