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The day the Vatican flag went to the Moon

VATICAN-MOON

AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO

Cyprien Viet - published on 05/02/24

The astronauts on the first mission to land on the Moon took with them a small Vatican flag, which US President Richard Nixon later presented to Pope Paul VI.

It’s one of the most astonishing items on display in the Vatican Museums. A flag from the world’s smallest state, which was carried to the Moon by the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission, is displayed in a showcase, along with a few fragments of the lunar surface. A small plaque reads: “This flag traveled to the Moon and returned with Apollo 11, and these fragments of the lunar surface were brought back to Earth by the first crew to reach the Moon.” 

A gesture by the US President

The flag was presented to Pope Paul VI by US President Richard Nixon during his second visit to the Vatican on September 29, 1970, following a first meeting with the Italian pope on March 2, 1969.

President Nixon, a Quaker, was concerned by what he saw as the Holy See’s overtures toward Communist regimes. Buoyed by the worldwide enthusiasm generated by the Moon mission, which had enabled the United States to assert its technological and cultural supremacy over the rival Soviet Union, he thus sought to anchor the Papacy within the Western bloc. 

DRAPEAU-VATICAN-ESPACE-IMEDIA
This Vatican flag was carried to the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Naturally aware of the risk of instrumentalization in this complex Cold War climate, Paul VI nonetheless watched with passion man’s first steps on the Moon, which he followed live on television from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

“Honor to you, men who are the artisans of the great space enterprise! Honor to all those who have made the most daring of flights possible!” the Pope exclaimed after the event. 

His enthusiasm also shone through in his statements at the Angelus on July 13, 1969, a week before the Apollo 11 crew arrived on the Moon. “Man, this creature of God — even more than the mysterious Moon, at the center of this enterprise — reveals himself to us. He reveals himself as a giant. He is revealed as divine, not in himself, but in his beginning and his destiny. Honor to man, honor to his dignity, his spirit, his life,” declared the Italian pope.

The three astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission — Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins — were received in an official audience at the Vatican on October 16, 1969. Paul VI paid tribute to them in these words:

“Man has a natural urge to explore the unknown-to know the unknown; yet man has also a fear of the unknown. Your bravery has transcended this fear, and through your intrepid adventure, man has taken another step towards knowing more of the universe; in your words, Mr. Armstrong, ‘one giant leap for mankind.’”

Buzz Aldrin’s lunar communion

The Apollo 11 mission included a fervent Christian in the person of Edwin Aldrin —commonly known as Buzz Aldrin, the inspiration for the character of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story — who was a deacon of the Presbyterian Church. Driven by a deep faith, he received communion with bread and wine in a discreet personal ceremony shortly after the moon landing, using a kit entrusted to him by his pastor. (Note: the Presbyterian Church does not share the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ through transubstantiation, so it was not a sacramental communion from the Church’s perspective.)

This religious ceremony was not broadcast by NASA, as it fell outside the scientific domain that legitimized public funding of the mission, but Buzz Aldrin publicly described his religious actions a year later, declaring, “It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.” 

A psalm in space

From the lunar module, back in space, the astronaut also quoted — this time on live TV — this passage from Psalm 8: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?”

This moment sealed the destiny of a man whose childhood was marked not only by scouting, but also by the alcoholism of his mother, whose maiden name, surprisingly, was Marion Moon.

Still very popular in the USA, Buzz Aldrin, aged 94, is currently the only survivor of the Apollo 11 mission, following the deaths of Neil Armstrong in 2012 and Michael Collins in 2021.

Tags:
Paul VIUnited StatesVatican
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