Nicolaus Copernicus


Father Copernicus seems to have been so self-effacing that he was not considered well-known enough for a marked grave. He did not change the world as Christ did, but he changed the way the world is understood.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Analysis of a tomb in St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, commissioned by the Pope four years ago, using Carbon-14 and DNA analysis, enabled the announcement earlier this year that it does indeed contain the remains of St. Paul. Similarly, computer analysis has now verified the discovery of the long-lost body of Mikolaj Kopernik (1473-1543), popularly known as Nicolaus Copernicus, buried anonymously in the Polish cathedral of Frombork. DNA samples of a femur bone and a tooth matched the DNA of a strand of hair found in one of his books in a Swedish library. Digital reconstruction from his skull done in a crime lab reproduced his broken nose and a scar on the forehead.

Copernicus, son of a Polish father and German mother, was a priest and the temporary administrator of the diocese of Frauenburg. As a Renaissance man, he put Leonardo da Vinci in the shade, although painting seems to be the one art that did not claim him as a master. After studies in the universities of Krakow (where Pope John Paul II studied and taught), Bologna, Padua and Ferrara, he became a prominent jurist and mathematician and also practiced medicine for six years, donating his service to the poor. The polymath pioneered reform of the monetary system as it was developing in his day and did it so well that he was made an economic advisor to the government of Prussia. In what little spare time he had, he translated into Latin for posterity the Greek letters of Theophylactus.

He studied astronomy well enough to lecture in Rome on the planets, and shortly before his death he completed his heliocentric cosmology. This "Copernican Revolution" which overturned the Ptolemaic picture of Earth as the center of the universe, except for Manhattan of course, launched modern astronomy and greatly influenced Galileo who was born 21 years after the death of Copernicus. He was too careful a theologian to muddle astronomy with astrology as did Galileo, nor did he insist unscientifically that his theory was absolute fact, a mistake which got Galileo into trouble.

Father Copernicus seems to have been so self-effacing that he was not considered well-known enough for a marked grave. He did not change the world as Christ did, but he changed the way the world is understood. He stands in the line of such Catholic scientists as Pascal the mathematician, Lavoisier the father of modern chemistry, Schrodinger who discovered wave mechanics, Vesalius the anatomist, Fermi who began atomic physics, Malphigi who developed microscopic anatomy, von Neumann who theorized the modern computer, the childless monk Mendel who became the father of genetics, Pasteur whose germ theory saved countless lives, and Fleming whose penicillin probably saved more lives than any other discovery in history. The identification of the body of Copernicus is a fitting reminder of this great and continuing tradition.



Father George William Rutler. "Nicolaus Copernicus." Weekly Column for October 24, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of Father George W. Rutler.


Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001.

Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 16 books, including: Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2009 Father George W. Rutler

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.