ROME – On August 21, a large part of the United States will witness one of the most stunning and awe-inspiring spectacles offered by nature: A total eclipse of the sun.

Those who will be looking up on the path of totality, where the eclipse is best visible, will watch as the light turns gradually dimmer, until suddenly it will be night. The stars will once again be visible and birds will roost, animals will think it’s nighttime and the air will get cooler.

Even colors will change, adopting an eerie quality because the light will be coming from the sun’s corona, the aura of plasma that surrounds stars, which has a different spectral distribution from normal sunlight.

“It’s really an extraordinary sight,” said Jesuit Father Paul Mueller, administrative vice director at the Vatican observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world.

“You can see why – at a time when people did not understand the cause of an eclipse – to suddenly and unpredictably have darkness come in the middle of the day was a frightening and disturbing thing,” he told Crux.

The movements of celestial bodies have long fascinated and frightened humanity, and people have often tried to decipher hidden messages in the sky. Over the centuries, astrologers and fortunetellers were in high demand in the courts of emperors, kings and even popes. It’s also part of the Christ story, as it was a prophecy by astrologers foretelling the birth of a new king that led Herod to launch the massacre of the innocents.

As far as eclipses are concerned, they’re also part of papal history.

In 1628, Pope Urban VIII was staying at the Quirinal Palace near the Vatican with one main concern on his mind: His imminent death.

Portrait of Urban VIII.
(Credit: Pietro da Cortona [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)
The pope was neither sick nor old, yet rumors of his demise were spreading among his enemies. Astrologers (the distinction between astrology and astronomy really wouldn’t be made for another century) had predicted that the pontiff would weaken and die as a consequence of the two solar eclipses of that year. Urban VIII even had his very own large team of astrologers double-check the prediction, but they agreed with the verdict and declared that the pope would meet sudden death on December 25, during the solar eclipse.

When all hope seemed lost, the Barberini pope got word of a well-known astrologer who had been kept in an Inquisition prison for 27 years in the Italian city of Naples.

His name was Tommaso Campanella, and, beyond being a Dominican priest, he had also successfully dabbled in philosophy, poetry, heresy and magic. He began learning the complex arts of astrology during his confinement, and became well known for predicting the fortunes of the other inmates. He had also written several books, where he sustained that he had knowledge of magical powers that could eliminate malicious omens caused by the alignment of celestial bodies.

Urban ordered that Campanella be brought to the papal palace and dressed as a peasant, so as not to raise suspicions that the pope was meeting with a known heretic.

According to historical documents, the unlikely couple then sealed themselves in a dark room, dressed in white robes. They sprinkled rose vinegar and burned scented incense to eliminate the evil elements in the air. Campanella used gemstones and torches to recreate the vault of the sky within the room, and gave Urban a liquor distilled under the influence of his ruling planets while soft music played outside.

Whatever Campanella did, it worked.

Tommaso Campanella, copper incision, 1682. (Credit: Nicolas de Larmassin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)
The December solar eclipse in Rome that year happened when the sun was low in the western sky, therefore the moon obscured only a small part of the sun. Urban lived to see another day. To thank him for his powerful magic, Urban released Campanella from his decade-long imprisonment, and the Dominican order in Rome awarded him the title of Magister Theologiae (meaning “Master of Theology,” which is no small recognition for a heretic, and from Dominicans to boot!)

Yet soon afterwards, rumors began to circulate once again that the pope would die during an eclipse, this time on June 10, 1630. The Spanish, French and German envoys even called cardinals from their countries to prepare for a conclave to elect a successor.

This time, Urban VIII escaped to the lakeside papal estate in Castel Gandolfo and once more called for Campanella to perform his magic and rid him of the evil predictions. The magic proved successful again, and the solar eclipse began its voyage in Canada and set in Corsica, never being visible from Rome.

But Urban VIII did not wish to end up like Pope Gregory XIII, who spent the last four years of his life in fear of the eclipse that would finally kill him, and decided to take a rather revolutionary step against astrological predictions.

On April 1, 1631 Urban issued a papal bull called Iscrutabilis Judiciorum Dei (“The inscrutable judgments of God”), which prohibited any member or official of the Catholic Church from taking part in astrological predictions.

Keeping in mind that, at the time, astrologers were professors at the most famous universities in the world as well as essential to many medical practices, the pope’s was a fairly radical stance.

Urban VIII ended up having one of the longest pontificates in history, lasting almost 21 years, and died in 1644.

Fast-forward to 1998. In that year, Pope John Paul II, concerned with a resurgence in popularity of Wiccan beliefs and Zodiac signs, sent a letter to all bishops citing Iscrutabilis and reminding them that “esoteric superstition found in astrological speculations” was “incompatible with the Christian faith.”

Interestingly enough, Pope John Paul II was born and was buried on days when there were solar eclipses.

When “you do not cling to the word of the Lord, but consult the horoscopes and fortune tellers, you begin to sink,” Pope Francis said Sunday August 13 during his weekly Angelus, repeating what he has stated on many other occasions.

Ancient superstitions and beliefs aside, Mueller said U.S. citizens should prepare for a beautiful sight next week, since several factors will contribute to making the eclipse particularly memorable.

“You have an unusually long view at the beauty, because it’s happening at a time when the moon is covering the sun more fully,” Mueller said. “The moon is closer, so it looks bigger.”

Unlike the eclipses that worried Urban VIII, the eclipse in the U.S. will be very visible, especially in the areas mapped by NASA, meaning people and media across the country will get a long hard look at the natural event.

A map of the United States showing the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse. (Credit: NASA.)

“Even today, when people can understand the science perfectly, it’s a striking and wonderful thing to have the sky go dark, to have a strange view of the sun,” Mueller said. “Like in any other beautiful and moving event, people will sometimes make spiritual associations with it, but I think that’s a matter of a person’s individual life of prayer and spirituality.

“Every Christian and any Catholic can certainly find beauty and wonder in (eclipses), and it can be a motive for praise and worship,” he continued, but also pointed to the fact that a flower can serve the same purpose.

But for those who look for a great design in natural events such as the eclipse, Mueller said that there’s a special coincidence that could lead some to believe that “God’s been nice to us.”

The moon happens to be at just the right distance and to have just the right size so that, when aligned, it perfectly covers the face of the sun during a solar eclipse, giving us the magnificent spectacle of a pale white circle in the dark sky.

“That’s a nice little gift from God,” Mueller said.