Bl. Niels Stensen

(1638-1686)

Particularly because Catholic church authorities once censured the astronomer Galileo for some of his scientific theories, the Church has usually been judged an enemy of the physical sciences. This is to forget that there have been many eminent Catholic scientists whose very names have sometimes become a part of the scientific vocabulary. One thinks of the bacteriologist, Louis Pasteur (“pasteurization”); of heredicist, Gregor Mendel (the “Mendelian Laws”); and of electro-physicist, Alessandro Volta (the “volt”).

On October 23, 1988, Pope John Paul II conferred the title “blessed” on yet another brilliant Catholic scientist, who was a convert and became a bishop. Niels Stensen, a native of Denmark, was better known to science by his Latinized name: Nicholas Steno, or Stenonius. He had a fascinating life.

The descendant of a long line of Lutheran pastors, Niels early displayed a flair for mathematics and the natural sciences. In 1656 he went to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, to study medicine. Gifted as a researcher, he made his first anatomical discovery on April 5, 1660: it was the duct connected with the parotid salivary gland. Thereafter this became known as “Steno’s Duct”. He also discovered the circulation of blood in the human body. Continuing his anatomical studies at Leyden, he pioneered in asserting that the heart is a muscle, in outlining the function of the uterus, and in pointing out new methods of researching the brain. He received his M.D. from the University of Leyden in 1664. Then he went to Paris to lecture, and was invited by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to continue his research at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, Italy. Here he shifted his focus, and became the founder of scientific paleontology, geology and crystallography. He was meanwhile in contact with the philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Rene Descartes, and he did not hesitate to tell them where he thought they misstepped.

Even before he moved to Florence, Niels had felt a strong attraction to the Catholic Church. He was received into its membership on November 7, 1667. Because he was a Catholic, the University of Copenhagen would not call him to its faculty. The king of Denmark, however, engaged him for two years as “royal anatomist”. But Dr. Stensen experienced much anti-Catholic discrimination during that stint.

The scientist was glad to return to Italy for another reason. He petitioned to be ordained a priest, and had his wish fulfilled on Easter 1675. Two years later he was named titular bishop of Titiopolis, and sent as vicar apostolic to Scandinavia. Now the scientist yielded to the missionary, and Bishop Stensen became noted for his reforming zeal, his generous charities, and his “ecumenical” outlook. Three years later he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Muenster. He left Muenster in 1683 in protest against an illegal church election, but he continued for the last three years of his life as a missionary in Germany’s Northland. Here he was admired for his prayerfulness and the simplicity of his life. He continued to write, but now about spiritual rather than scientific matters. When he died on December 5,1686, the Grand Duke of Tuscany brought his remains to Florence to be entombed in the Church of San Lorenzo, of which the grand ducal family were outstanding patrons.

After his death, Niels Stensen the scientist was long forgotten. In modern times, however, due credit has been given to him as the founder of several contemporary sciences. As for Niels, this distinction rested lightly on his shoulders. His second career was to him even more important than his first.

Blessed Niels had never found a conflict between natural and supernatural truth. His episcopal motto expressed sublimely his equal interest in both: “Beautiful are the things we see; more beautiful are the things we know; but most beautiful of all are the things we have no knowledge of.”

-Father Robert F. McNamara

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