ROME — Pope Francis gave a shout-out to the U.S. aerospace program on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo XI moon landing, calling the accomplishment a “great step for mankind.”
“Dear brothers and sisters, fifty years ago yesterday man set foot on the moon, fulfilling an extraordinary dream,” the pope said following his weekly Angelus message Sunday.
“May the memory of that great step for mankind enkindle the desire to progress together toward even greater objectives: more dignity for the weak, more justice among peoples, more future for our common home,” the pontiff added.
The pope’s words seemed intended as a nod to the statement by astronaut Neil Armstrong after stepping out of the lunar module onto the moon’s surface in July 1969: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Among the half billion people watching the moon landing was Pope Paul VI, who had followed the adventure with great personal interest.
Prior to the voyage, Pope Paul sent a printed biblical text of Psalm 8 to be left on the Moon by the astronauts, along with his assurance of prayers for this “wonderful undertaking.”
That psalm praises God for his creation and for the exalted place He had given to human beings in the midst of the universe.
“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place,” the Psalmist wrote, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?”
“Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet.”
Paul watched the moon landing on television and then sent a message to the astronauts congratulating them on their extraordinary accomplishment.
“Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams,” the pope said in a message to the three astronauts who had just landed on the moon.
Later that year, Pope Paul received astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in the Vatican on October 16, 1969.
During that visit, Paul told Armstrong that he was right to describe the mission as “one giant leap for mankind.”
“Man has a natural urge to explore the unknown, to know the unknown; yet man has also a fear of the unknown,” the pontiff told the three men. “Your bravery has transcended this fear and through your intrepid adventure man has taken another step toward knowing more of the universe.”
“We admire your courage, and We admire the spirit with which you fulfilled this mission: a spirit of service to humanity, and a spirit of peace,” Paul said. “Our prayers, with the prayers of the Church throughout the world, were with you every moment of your voyage, and We, on behalf of the whole Church, offer Our sincerest congratulations to you, and also, through you, to the scientists, the technicians, the workers, and all who contributed knowledge, skill and labour to this supreme enterprise.”
Paul also lavished praise on the United States and her people.
“We also congratulate and thank the President and people of your beloved nation for making possible this exploration, with typical generosity of spirit, for the good of man and the world,” he said.
“We praise the genius, dedication and perseverance which has been shown throughout this magnificent undertaking,” he said.
“The standard of collaboration and co-operation, and the perfection which was reached in the organization and in the sciences and talent’s employed, are the admiration of the world and pay tribute to the capacity of modern man to reach beyond himself, to reach beyond human nature, to attain the perfection of achievement made possible by his God-given intelligence,” he said.