A Scientist Who Renewed His Baptism

(Homily for Baptism of the Lord)

Message: Steno - a man who investigated the mysteries of the created world - shows the fruitfulness of an adult renewal of baptism.

In celebrating the Baptism of the Lord, we affirm both the necessity of baptism for salvation and the importance of an adult renewal of baptism. The very fact that the sinless Jesus submitted to baptism indicates its necessity for us sinners. And that he received baptism at age 30 speaks to the role of adult renewal whether you call it accepting Jesus as your personal Savior, renunciation of sin with profession of faith or making a good confession.

I'd like to tell you about a man baptized as child who made an adult renewal of faith. Last Sunday I mentioned him: a scientist named Niels (Nicolaus) Stensen. The scientific world knows him as "Steno" (STEH-noh) the Latin version of his name. He was a young Danish physician, eager to advance human knowledge. In his twenties Steno performed remarkable investigations. Some were seemingly small, like his discovery of parotid gland which produces saliva.* Others were far reaching; for example, he demonstrated that the heart is a muscle (not a "furnace" as Descartes and others argued). In addition to anatomical studies, Steno became fascinated by the natural world, especially the question of why we find seashells at high altitudes.** His account of geological strata earned him the title father of modern geology.

Brought up a Lutheran in Denmark, Steno had been taught that Catholicism is a corrupt form of Christianity and that, as a result, Catholics tend toward personal corruption. However, while carrying out his geological investigations in Italy, he met Catholics who upset his stereotype. Desiring to know the truth, Steno studied the Bible in its original languages and read the principal early Christian writers. He became intellectually convinced of the truth of Catholicism, but he had a difficult time separating himself emotionally from the faith he had imbibed as a child. Walking down a street, he heard a woman shout from a window, "Go not on the side you about to go, sir, go on the other side." The woman meant it as practical directions, but it struck him on a deeper level. Soon after this incident, he approached a priest who received the great scientist into the Catholic Church.

Described as "the trailblazing geologist", he went on to become a priest eventually a bishop Pope John Paul II beatified him on October 23, 1988. However, today January 11, is his birthday! A celebration is in order and perhaps the best present of all would be to learn more about Blessed Niels and remember him as we pray, asking his intercession. Blessed Steno, intercede for us - especially for our young people and for those wavering in their faith.

Steno - a man who investigated the mysteries of the created world - shows the fruitfulness of an adult renewal of baptism. Like him we admire the complexity of God's creation - and we recall the words of today's first reading "Says the Lord, as high as the heavens are above the earth so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts." Amen.


*Steno was the first to observe the tiny duct which supplies saliva to the mouth. To this day it is known as the ductus Stenonianus or Stensen's duct. He also discovered the tear-producing glands. Previously, scientists thought that the force of grief squeezed tears out of the brains.

**Dr. Alan Cutler, a geologist, has written a worthwhile biography of Steno, The Seashell on the Mountaintop. Although the book deals mainly with the scientific achievements, it does provide a short account of his conversion and struggles as a priest and, later, as a bishop given responsibility for the few stray Catholics in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. Dr. Cutler has a paragraph which deserves to be quoted in full:

"Conditioned by the familiar story of Galileo's persecution by the Catholic Church and by the modern-day clash between scientists and Protestant fundamentalists over evolution in the classroom, we often assume antagonism between religion and science is inevitable. But as much as their methods and ideals differ today, over the history of both there has been easily as much cross-fertilization as conflict. Until very recently, religious and scientific arguments were advanced by both sides in every important scientific controversy. Too often what filters down to us in the history books are the scientific arguments of the winners and the religious arguments of the losers. Thus the picture of a long-standing rift between the two."

Spanish Version

From Archives (Baptism of the Lord):

2014 (Year A): Entering The Big Story
2013 (Year C): Generous Love
2011 (Year A): Seven Teachings about Baptism
2010 (Year C): Saved Through the Bath of Rebirth
2009 (Year B): The Power of Baptism
2008 (Year A): Road to Sanity
2005 (Year A): Most Shocking
2004 (Year C): With Whom I Am Well Pleased
2003 (Year B): The Membership
2002 (Year A): The Grace of Baptism
2000 (Year B): Limits of Solidarity

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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