Church Reburies Remains of Copernicus with Honors

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

After discovering the remains of the once condemned 16th century astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus,  church authorities in Poland have reburied him with honors.

The Associated Press (AP) is reporting that the mortal remains of Copernicus were blessed with holy water and reburied on Saturday by some of Poland’s highest ranking clergy. Rather than lying in an unmarked grave, his burial place now sports a black granite tombstone identifying him as the founder of the heliocentric theory as well as a church canon, which is a clerical position below that of a priest.

Copernicus, died in 1543 in a remote corner of northern Poland as a little known astronomer. He developed his theory that the earth revolved around the sun in his spare time, using mathematical calculations and the naked eye because the telescope had not yet been invented.

Decades after his death, as his theories came to be more widely known, this theory was condemned by the Church as heretical because it removed Earth and humanity from their central position in the universe. His major treatise — “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” — was published at the very end of his life, and he only received a copy of the printed book on the day he died — May 21, 1543. This book and others written by the scholar were banned by the Church for 300 years after his death, but were officially removed from the list in 1822.

Jacek Jezierski, a local bishop who encouraged the search for Copernicus, said that he considers Copernicus’ burial as 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,” said Jacek Jezierski, the local bishop who considers the reburial to be part of the Church’s broader embrace of science as being compatible with Biblical belief. “Science and faith can be reconciled.”

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.”

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

According to the AP, it was local bishops who urged scientists in 2004 to search for the astronomer’s remains. In 2005, the skull and bones of a 70 year-old man – the age of Copernicus at the time of his death – were found in an unmarked grave.  A computer reconstruction of the skull revealed a broken nose and other features that resembled a self-portrait of Copernicus. Later, DNA taken from teeth and bones were found to match the DNA of hairs found in one of his books.

For several weeks prior to Saturday’s burial, a wooden casket holding the remains has lain in state in the city of Olsztyn, and on Friday they were toured around the region to towns linked to his life until finally being laid to rest beneath the Cathedral in Frombork, Poland.

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