Copernicus reburied as a hero in Poland

Catholic Church had condemned astronomer’s work

Priests and other attendees gathered beside the coffin holding the remains of 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus yesterday in Frombork, northern Poland. Priests and other attendees gathered beside the coffin holding the remains of 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus yesterday in Frombork, northern Poland. (Jerzy Mytka/ Associated Press)
By Vanessa Gera
Associated Press / May 23, 2010

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FROMBORK, Poland — Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose findings were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero yesterday, nearly 500 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

His burial in a tomb in the cathedral where he once served as a church canon and doctor indicates how far the church has come in making peace with the scientist whose revolutionary theory that the Earth revolves around the sun helped usher in the modern scientific age.

Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, died as a little-known astronomer working in what is now Poland, far from Europe’s centers of learning. He had spent years laboring in his free time developing his theory, which was later condemned as heretical by the church because it removed Earth and humanity from their central position in the universe.

His revolutionary model was based on complex mathematical calculations and his naked-eye observations of the heavens because the telescope had not yet been invented.

After his death, his remains rested in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral.

Yesterday, his remains were blessed with holy water by some of Poland’s highest-ranking clerics before the coffin was lowered into the same spot where part of his skull and other bones were found in 2005.

A black granite tombstone identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory, but also a church canon, a cleric that ranks below a priest. The tombstone is decorated with a model of the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

At the urging of a local bishop, scientists began searching in 2004 for the astronomer’s remains and eventually turned up a skull and bones of a 70-year-old man — the age Copernicus was when he died. A reconstruction made by forensic police based on the skull showed a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus.

In a later stage of the investigation, DNA from teeth and bones matched that from hairs found in one of his books, leading the scientists to conclude with great probability that they had found Copernicus.

In recent weeks, a casket holding those remains has lain in state in Olsztyn, and on Friday they were toured around the region to towns linked to his life.

One of the world’s leading Copernicus scholars, Owen Gingerich, traveled from Cambridge, Mass., for the event. “I missed the first funeral back in 1543 and thought this was an occasion not to be missed,’’ he joked.

The pageantry comes 18 years after the Vatican rehabilitated the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was persecuted in the Inquisition for carrying the Copernican Revolution forward.

Wojciech Ziemba, 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.’’

Yesterday’s Mass was led by Jozef Kowalczyk, the papal nuncio and newly named Primate of Poland, the highest church authority in this Catholic country.

Poland also is the homeland of John Paul II, the late pope who said in 1992 that the church was wrong in condemning Galileo’s work.

Jacek Jezierski, a local bishop who encouraged the search for Copernicus, said that he considers Copernicus’s burial in Frombork part of the church’s broader embrace of science as being compatible with Biblical belief.

“Today’s funeral has symbolic value in that it is a gesture of reconciliation between science and faith,’’ Jezierski said. “Science and faith can be reconciled.’’

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