After 467 years, Copernicus gets a hero's burial

Somewhat belated Vatican U-turn sees astronomer taken from unmarked grave to a place of honour

Vanessa Gera,Poland
Sunday 23 May 2010 00:00

Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose work was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero yesterday, 467 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

His reburial 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 to 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 centres of learning. He had spent years labouring in his free time developing his theory, which was later condemned as heretical by the church because it removed the Earth and humanity from their central position in the universe.

After his death, his remains rested in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral in Frombork, northern Poland, but its exact location was unknown. At the urging of a local bishop, scientists began searching in 2004 for the astronomer's remains and eventually turned up the skull and bones of a 70-year-old man – the age Copernicus was when he died. DNA from teeth and bones matched that of hairs found in one of his books, leading the scientists to conclude in all probability that they had finally found Copernicus.

In recent weeks, a wooden coffin holding those remains has lain in state in the nearby city of Olsztyn, and on Friday the coffin was taken around the region to towns linked to his life. That ceremony came 18 years after the Vatican rehabilitated the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was persecuted for carrying the Copernican revolution forward.

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 his scientific genius". Saturday's Mass was led by Jozef Kowalczyk, the papal nuncio and primate of Poland, the highest church authority in this deeply Catholic country. Poland also is the homeland of Pope John Paul II, who in 1992 said the church was wrong to condemn Galileo.

Copernicus's burial in an anonymous grave in the 16th century was not linked to suspicions of heresy. When he died, his ideas were just starting to be discussed by a small group of Europe's astronomers, astrologers and mathematicians, and the church was not yet forcefully condemning the heliocentric worldview as heresy, according to Jack Repcheck, the author of Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began. "There is no indication that Copernicus was worried about being declared a heretic and being kicked out of the church for his astronomical views," Mr Repcheck said. "Why was he just buried along with everyone else, like every other canon in Frombork? Because at the time of his death he was just any other canon in Frombork. He was not the iconic hero that he has become."

Copernicus had, however, been at odds with his superiors in the church over other matters. He was reprimanded for keeping a mistress, which violated his vow of celibacy, and was forced to give her up. He was suspected of harbouring sympathies for Lutheranism, which was spreading in northern Europe at the time. Copernicus's major treatise – On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres – was published at the very end of his life, and he received a copy of the printed book on the day he died.

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